Experts say the flu-related deaths of 2 nursing home residents in Minnesota are warning signs for the upcoming flu season.
Epidemiologists are closely following a circulating strain of influenza that disproportionately affects seniors, the Star Tribune reported Monday. Although national flu activity remains low this early in the season, the recent flu-related deaths of 2 Minnesota seniors and several outbreaks in long-term care facilities are raising red flags for older adults.
The strain that concerns health officials is H3 influenza A (A/H3), which caused the deaths of both women and has been spotted in isolated cases throughout the nation. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) announced the deaths on its Web site in order to urge seniors, caregivers, and health care workers to get vaccinated before the 2010-2011 flu season reaches its peak.
“This may be a difficult year in terms of severe influenza infections in the elderly,” said Ruth Lynfield, MD, a state epidemiologist at MDH. “In years where there has been primarily H3 influenza A circulating, we’ve seen higher rates of serious illness, particularly in the elderly.”
This year’s flu vaccine includes A/H3, and a stronger dose has been approved for adults aged 65 and older; however, the vaccine may not be as beneficial for older adults. For this reason, it is especially important for pharmacists and others in close contact with seniors to get vaccinated.
“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,” said Kristen Ehresman, director of the infectious disease division at MDH.
An estimated 70% of the state’s health care workers get vaccinated—a rate Dr. Lynfield said is still not sufficient to prevent the transmission of flu in pharmacies, clinics, hospitals, and long-term care facilities. Minnesota’s vaccination rate is significantly higher than the national average for health care professionals, which hovers at approximately 40%, according to the CDC.
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