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Flu virus off and running; get a flu shot, experts advise

It's not too late to get a flu shot for this year's season, health experts say. (File / News Tribune)

It's the season for sneezin' and health officials report influenza is off to an early and aggressive start.

St. Joseph's Area Health Services reports nine positive cases of influenza so far this year, the patients ranging in age from 1 year to 58 years of age.

"Park Rapids has not seen a widespread positive flu outbreak, but it's earlier than normal," St. Joseph's Infection Prevention/ Employee Health Coordinator Wendy Gullicksrud said. "That's what concerns us. Typically we see cases in February."

"It's not too late to get a flu shot," said St. Joseph's Community Health Manager Rae Ann Mayer, who recommends the immunization for all ages - from kids to adults. "We have to get beyond thinking it's just for the elderly.

"This year's shot appears to be effective against the strain," Mayer said. The A/H3 is the most common influenza identified so far this year. "There's plenty of the vaccine, and it's much more accessible," than in years past.

Flu shots are now readily available at the clinic, grocery stores and drug stores.

Anyone can get the flu, which can be spread by cough, sneezing or nasal secretions, but rates of infection are highest among children, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This year's flu travel pattern is non-typical, Mayer said of it moving up from the south, as opposed to emerging in the northern states.

Hand hygiene is the number one protection, Gullicksrud said of using alcohol-based foam or gel regularly throughout the

day - unless hands are visibly soiled or the lavatory has been used.

"Grocery carts," she reminds. "Wipe them down!" Sanitizing wipes are generally handy at grocery stores.

And if you have the flu, cough into your elbow or a tissue, Gullicksrud said.

"Stay home," both local health officials advise of the flu's onset. It's most contagious in the early stages.

The number one death- risk of influenza is that it can cause pneumonia, Gullicksrud said.

"Twenty years without calling in sick is nothing to brag about," she said spreading of the virus to others.

While both advocate getting the flu shot, or the nasal spray vaccine early in the season, Gullicksrud admits the flu vaccine is not the be-all and end-all solution to the bug.

Among healthy adults getting a traditional flu shot, the average success rate is just 59 percent. And less than 50 percent of elderly get protection from the flu shot.

Mike Ostertholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, is gaining national attention for his opinion on the flu shot.

A report released this fall stated the vaccination provides modest protection for healthy young and middle aged adults, and little if any protection for those 65 and older.

A recurring error in the influenza vaccine studies led to exaggeration of the vaccine's effectiveness, the report states.

But the epidemiologist is not an opponent; he recommends using it, but lowering expectations on its effectiveness. He advocates development of a vaccine that would cover many strains of the flu, over a longer period of time. But that comes with a hefty price tag.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advocate vaccination.

"While determining how well a flu vaccine works is challenging, in general, recent studies have supported the conclusion that influenza vaccination benefits public health, especially when the viruses in the vaccine and circulating viruses are well matched," the CDC states.

Prescription Tamiflu, an antiviral drug, is considered the "second line of defense" against the flu.