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Signs point to bad flu season

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It's not too late to get the flu vaccine, and it looks like an increasingly good idea -- because it appears we are heading for a rough influenza season.

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"The news flash is it's going to be a virulent flu season this year," said Ronda Stock, who heads the Becker County Community Health Department.

The flu season is generally considered to start in September and run through May, with the peak season in December, January and February, said Dr. Ram Kafle, who works at Sanford Health Clinic in Detroit Lakes.

"We are continuing to give them (flu vaccinations)," which can be done either through a shot or a nasal mist, he said.

It takes about two weeks for the body to develop immunity after the vaccination, so even those who are late to the vaccination show will benefit through the worst of the flu season.

Minnesota's flu season is beginning to take shape, with 26 more people hospitalized in the most recent week of accounting, according to the Minnesota Health Department.

The statewide total is now up to 70 hospitalizations since the start of fall. Four schools reported outbreaks, along with one nursing home in this most recent week.

No deaths have been reported yet in Minnesota, but two children have died elsewhere in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Five Southern states have reported higher-than-normal levels of doctor visits for flulike illnesses in late November -- the earliest start to the flu season in nearly 10 years, CDC Director Thomas Frieden told the Wall Street Journal in a teleconference with reporters.

Early flu season is sometimes a sign that it will be more severe than normal.

And the dominant flu strain in circulation, known as H3N2, tends to cause particularly severe flu, Dr. Frieden told the Journal.

"The early nature of the cases, as well as the specific strains we're seeing, suggest this could be a bad flu year," he told reporters.

The good news is that this season's flu vaccine is a 90 percent match with the dominant season flu strain -- so it should offer a high level of protection.

The last time flu season arrived this early was 2003-04, but the flu vaccine was an inaccurate match for that year's strain.

About 48,600 people died from the flu that year, compared to the average seasonal death rate from the flu of about 23,600 people, according to the CDC.

This year's early start is a departure from the past two winters, which saw a mild flu season that peaked late.

The CDC recommends that everyone aged six months and older get a flu shot.

Populations of special concern include small children, the elderly, pregnant women, those with compromised immune systems, and anybody who works with any of those groups, Stock said.

Becker County Public Health is only giving the flu vaccine to people that are uninsured or underinsured, Stock said.

But it's easy to get vaccinated at the Sanford Health or Essentia Health clinics.

At Sanford, those seeking the flu vaccine can either walk in and ask or call to set up an appointment with a nurse, said Dr. Kafle.

Flu symptoms in adults can include cough, runny nose, congestion, and muscle aches and pains.

"Like a cold, but more severe than cold symptoms," Dr. Kafle said.

Children often have symptoms that include diarrhea, vomiting and belly pain, he said.

"If they have symptoms, we recommend that they come in and be evaluated," he said. "We want to see them to avoid any complications."

Flu symptoms generally last 7-10 days and complications can include pneumonia, sinusitis, ear infections, worsening of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma -- and even heart and lung failure.

The elderly who die of the flu actually die from these complications, Kafle said.

During flu season, it's best to take simple precautions like washing or disinfecting your hands frequently, using anti-viral wipes on grocery carts and covering your mouth when you cough.

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