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Flu virus is hitting teenagers the hardest

Kay Sandau, a lab technician at Affiliated Community Medical Center in Willmar, tests a flu culture Friday at the clinic's lab. The flu season has been mild over year's past. Jo DeBruycker of the Health Learning Center at Affiliated Community Medical Centers, however, has noticed an increase in cases among those aged 9-16. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Where's the flu?

It's well into the annual influenza season, but there have been relatively few cases of the virus so far, local health providers said this week.

"We certainly are not out of the woods. The season can go quite late," said Stacey Zondervan, patient services director at Family Practice Medical Center in Willmar. Overall, however, it hasn't been as severe as some years, she said. "We really haven't seen a dramatic increase in the amount of flu cases walking through the doors."

Regionally, school-aged children -- rather than the elderly or the very young -- appear to be hit the hardest, and their numbers have recently been on the rise, said Jo DeBruycker of the Health Learning Center at Affiliated Community Medical Centers.

"It really was a very fast uptick this week," she said.

Cases have been concentrated in the 9- to 16-year-old age group -- a population that has not traditionally been targeted for flu shots. Most of the youngsters who have been coming down with influenza were not vaccinated for it, DeBruycker said.

Over the past few years, local health providers have been working harder to push the flu vaccine for children and teens. National studies have found this age group is more likely to spread the flu than either adults or the elderly, and that higher flu vaccination rates among kids can help reduce the overall spread of flu in the community.

The clusters of flu outbreaks that have been occurring around the region suggest that provides will need to redouble their efforts at getting more school-aged youngsters vaccinated, DeBruycker said.

"It's spread from one to the other. That's why we see outbreaks in schools," she said. "It's been a good lesson for all of us."

The absenteeism can take a toll, she said. "These days, academically and with all the extracurricular activities, taking a kid out for a week really is tough."

Statewide, most of the influenza outbreaks being reported to the Minnesota Department of Health have been in schools. Only a couple of outbreaks in nursing homes have been reported so far this winter.

Vaccination rates have remained high among the old and the chronically ill -- the two main population groups most at risk of serious illness and complications from influenza, DeBruycker said. "We've really seen the protection."

Both local clinics administered a record number of flu shots last fall.

Last year the flu vaccine was a poor match for the flu virus strains that were circulating. This year's version of the vaccine appears to be a much better match, which may help explain why this year's flu season has been less severe.

Cold weather during January might also have helped, Zondervan said. "People don't go out when it's cold. Those two variables play a part in it."

Because the flu virus can circulate through late winter and early spring, it's wise to continue taking precautions, she and DeBruycker said.

If you're not feeling well, get some extra rest and wash your hands frequently to avoid spreading germs, DeBruycker said.

This also will help protect against many of the other bugs -- RSV, strep and a variety of gastrointestinal viruses -- that are currently making the local rounds, experts said.

"Cover your cough. Wash your hands. Stay home when you're sick," Zondervan said. "We have to try to maximize the amount of public awareness out there. It has to be a multi-pronged approach."