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Hib disease inoculations, study under way

Hubbard County babies and their families are getting notices in the mail about a childhood infectious disease that saw a resurgence last year.

It's called Hib disease, for Haemophilus influenza type B. It was a contributor to bacterial infections in vulnerable populations, mostly infants, until vaccinations all but wiped it out.

It's a bacteria found in the nose and throat of many humans, but not all carriers become ill, according the Minnesota Department of Health.

When the vaccine makers experienced a shortage in 2007 and healthcare providers rationed the inoculation series in order to vaccinate more children, Minnesota saw a slight spike in cases.

"What they noticed in 2008 was that there were five cases statewide," said Chris Broeker, Hubbard County Health Director. "And that, going from years of having one case to five, in terms of percentages, was a jump."

"We have not seen this number of cases in young children since 1992," said state epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield. "It is extremely sad to see this disease resurface... These cases underscore the importance of maintaining high vaccination rates."

Of the five Minnesota cases, one infant died. Hib, not to be confused with HIV, results in meningitis, blood stream infections, pneumonia, arthritis and serious infection.

Infants typically get an immunization series of three shots, at 2, 4 and 6 months, with a booster around 12 to 15 months, Broeker said.

"Then they realized, because of vaccine shortages, that providers were being told to hold off on completing the series," Broeker said. "And so then for the last few years we've been holding off on giving the complete series because of the shortage, so more kids could have exposure to the vaccine. And what they're wondering about is whether the shortage has resulted in an incomplete vaccination series."

That's why infants in the 12- to 15-month age range are getting notices, so health officials can complete vaccinations for the population most at-risk, Broeker said. It's possible infants are not fully immunized if they haven't taken the entire series of shots.

Simultaneously, the state is conducting a survey of thousands of children, taking throat cultures to see how many of the population might be carriers. Bemidji is currently surveying 39 children, Broeker said. Park Rapids wasn't selected as a survey site because of its low population.

"The state wants to see if there's a higher incidence of carriage," Broeker said. "It may be that this bacteria is out there but it's not making us sick."

Nevertheless, health officials urge parents to start or complete the immunization series, to once again wipe out the disease.