State health officials are bracing for what they say could be a difficult year for the elderly in coping with influenza.
Health officials said today that a woman in her 80s from southeastern Minnesota died last week from complications due to influenza. The Minnesota Department of Health Public Health Laboratory confirmed that she had the A/H3 strain of influenza virus, a strain which has caused sporadic outbreaks in long-term care facilities in Minnesota and other states over the summer and early fall.
Earlier this month, another woman in her 80s, from the metropolitan area, died more than a month after contracting the A/H3 strain of the influenza virus. Both women had been residents of long-term care facilities.
"This may be a difficult year in terms of severe influenza infections in the elderly," Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health, said in a statement issued this morning. "In years when there has been primarily H3 influenza A circulating, we've seen higher rates of serious illness, particularly in the elderly."
Lynfield said it is extremely important for those who care for, live with or frequently visit the elderly to be vaccinated for influenza as a measure to protect the elderly.
That concern was shared by Kristen Ehresmann, director of the infectious disease division at the state Health Department.
"While Minnesotans over 65 have among the highest rates of influenza vaccination in the nation, and we do recommend vaccination for the elderly, it is important to remember that they may not respond as readily as younger individuals to the vaccine," she said. "So we need to protect them by making sure that all those around them are vaccinated, just as we protect babies less than six months by vaccinating those around them."
In addition, Lynfield urged all health care workers in Minnesota to get vaccinated for influenza. This includes health care workers in clinics, hospitals and long-term care facilities. Health care workers and others should stay home and limit contacts with others when they have symptoms of influenza. A recent survey indicated that overall about 70 percent of Minnesota's health care workers get vaccinated for influenza.
Health officials said that they have not yet seen increased influenza activity among the general population. It is not unusual to see sporadic cases and outbreaks among those in institutional settings in early fall. A cluster of A/H3 cases was reported last month in a long-term care facility in Minnesota. Clusters were also reported in a day care and a college in Iowa in July.
Influenza vaccination is recommended for everyone six months and older unless they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. Those at high risk for serious complications from influenza are especially urged to be vaccinated. These include pregnant women, seniors, young children and those with chronic medical conditions.
Children under six months of age cannot receive flu vaccine, so household contacts and caretakers should be vaccinated to protect the very young.