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Paynesville Press - December 21, 2005

Health officials confirm first flu case

By Michael Jacobson

Minnesota has recorded its first laboratory-confirmed case of influenza for the 2005-06 season, the Minnesota Department of Health reported last week. A four-year-old child from Hennepin County was determined to be caused by the H3N2 A/California strain, one of the three strains covered in this year's flu vaccine.

While there have been sporadic reports of influenza cases around the state already this year, announcement of the first positive specimen from the health department's public health laboratory marks the official start of flu season in Minnesota.

It's also a reminder that it's time to get a flu shot, if you haven't already. "Identifying influenza in the laboratory helps us know which strains are circulating and that tells us how well this year's vaccine will protect people from influenza and it's complications," said state epidemiologist Dr. Harry Hull. "Those who get a flu shot in the next week or two should be fully protected against influenza when the season peaks," he added.

Typically, widespread influenza activity in Minnesota occurs several weeks after the first handful of cases are reported to the department. It takes about two weeks for people to become fully immune after a flu shot. "So there's still time to get immunized," Hull said.

Getting a flu shot is important for anyone who wants to avoid influenza, regardless of age or health status, health officials said. It's especially important for people who are in a high-risk group - or who live with a person in a high-risk group - to be vaccinated against the flu.

"People over 65, people with chronic illnesses, and people with weakened immune systems are at greatest risk for complications from influenza," Hull said. "People in these groups can end up in the hospital - or even die - if they get the flu. Getting a flu shot is the easiest and most effective way to protect yourself and your loved ones."

A nasal spray is an alternative to flu shots for healthy people between the ages of five and 49.

The symptoms of influenza, which tend to come on suddenly, can include a sore throat, coughing, fever, headache, muscle aches, and fatigue. People who become severely ill with influenza-like symptoms should see a physician.

The flu vaccine has to be reformulated every year to cover those strains of the virus that are most likely to be circulating during the upcoming flu season.

Because the flu virus can change every year, people need to be revaccinated each year.

Flu shots are strongly recommended for people who have a greater risk of complications from influenza. They include: Anyone 65 years of age and older; residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities; anyone over six months of age with a chronic condition of the heart, circulatory system, or respiratory system, including asthma; anyone over six months of age who has been hospitalized or required ongoing medical attention during the past year for a chronic metabolic disorder (such as diabetes), kidney problems, a blood disorder, or immune system problems (such as HIV infection, or an immune system suppressed by medication, chemotherapy or radiation treatment); children and teenagers who are receiving ongoing medical treatment with aspirin, which could place them at risk of developing a serious condition known as Reye's Syndrome if they get the flu; healthy children 6-23 months; women who will be pregnant during flu season.

In addition, others who should receive flu vaccine are: people 50-64 years of age; close contacts with any of those mentioned above; and health care workers.

In addition to getting shots, there are other measures people can take to avoid getting the flu and other respiratory illnesses this time of year: Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or a sleeve when you cough or sneeze and keep your hands clean - either by washing them with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand-cleaning product.

As an added precaution, people in hospital and clinic waiting rooms may be asked to wear a mask if they're coughing or sneezing, in order to protect others from possible exposure to illness.

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