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Minn. health officials confirm first influenza cases of season

Minnesota has recorded its first two cases of laboratory-confirmed influenza for the 2012-13 season since official monitoring for influenza began Oct. 1, state health officials said Friday.

The Minnesota Department of Health Public Health Laboratory confirmed that a 25-year-old Olmsted County woman's illness was caused by the A (H3) strain of the virus and a 12-year old Hennepin County child's illness was caused by a B strain of the virus. The A (H3) strain was not swine-related. Neither person was hospitalized.

While monitoring for serious, hospitalized cases of influenza occurs year-round and Minnesota has seen some sporadic cases throughout the summer, these cases mark the official start of full-scale monitoring for influenza in the state.

Besides laboratory-based surveillance for influenza, the state Health Department also uses reports of influenza-like illness from clinics, and reports of influenza-like illness outbreaks in schools and long-term care facilities to monitor the level of influenza activity in the state.

"Identifying influenza in the laboratory helps us know which strains are circulating and if they match the projections for this year's vaccine," said Kristen Ehresmann, director of the infectious disease epidemiology prevention and control division at the Minnesota Department of Health. "This can help us understand the patterns of influenza disease and how to better protect people."

Influenza can be a serious illness for some people, she said. State health officials said the best way to avoid getting sick is to be vaccinated.

Influenza season in Minnesota typically occurs from October through April, but cases can occur throughout the year, including summer. "While widespread influenza activity usually does not peak until February, these first cases tell us that influenza is beginning to circulate in our communities," Ehresmann said.

Influenza vaccination is recommended for everyone six months and older unless they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. Vaccination is especially recommended for those at high risk for serious complications from influenza. These include pregnant women, seniors, young children and those with chronic medical conditions.

Children under six months of age cannot receive influenza vaccine, so household contacts and caretakers should be vaccinated to protect the very young.

For those who don't like shots, a nasal spray is available for healthy people ages 2 through 49. There is also a new product that uses a very small needle to inject the vaccine into the skin layers only.

There is an ample supply of vaccine available this year, Ehresmann said.

Vaccination is recommended every year, health officials said. The vaccine often changes from year to year because the strains of virus circulating around the world can change every year. The vaccine strains have been updated this year to match the strains that officials and scientists expect to circulate.

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. Influenza is caused by a virus and antibiotics are not effective against it.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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