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State continuing to track H1N1 novel influenza cases as WHO upgrades global status of outbreak to Phase 6; More cases expected; illness generally not severe

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) will continue its current efforts to track and respond to the H1N1 novel influenza outbreak in the state, following today's decision by the World Health Organization to reclassify the outbreak as a Phase 6 pandemic.

MDH officials are tracking what appears to be a rapidly growing number of confirmed cases in the Minnesota. They believe that the new virus has been widespread in the state since mid-May.

They emphasized that, while the worldwide H1N1 outbreak has now been designated as a "Phase 6 pandemic," the new WHO classification does not mean that illnesses caused by the virus are becoming more severe. It simply means that the virus is becoming more widespread throughout the world. Minnesota will continue monitoring H1N1 closely in the state.

The new influenza strain - which first appeared in late April - is making people ill in the state, even though the season for "regular" flu appears to be over. In fact, MDH has noticed a more than 50 percent increase in the number of cases over the past two weeks, including an increase in hospitalizations, with 221 cases identified as of June 11 and 46 hospitalizations. An average of 30 cases per day have been identified over the past three days. Most cases are not severe, and testing is targeted at people who are hospitalized, have underlying medical conditions or are pregnant, so most cases identified in Minnesota will be hospitalized cases. Some hospitalizations in young children have been due to dehydration, and hospitalizations have occurred in people with asthma and other underlying medical conditions. However, some hospitalizations have also occurred in people without underlying conditions. Most of the identified cases, including hospitalizations, have been in children, although patients have ranged in age up to 66 years.

"Because surveillance is done differently in different states, case numbers for different states can't be directly compared," said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, State Epidemiologist. "It can also be misleading to compare flu case numbers for different geographic areas within Minnesota," she said. "Differences in case numbers for different regions are most likely a reflection of the way in which cases are being reported."

"This new influenza is circulating throughout the state right now," Dr. Lynfield said. "Because a vaccine is not currently available, the most important thing you can do is take some simple precautions to prevent getting it or spreading it."

Standard prevention recommendations for influenza include:

· Cover your nose and mouth with your sleeve when you cough or sneeze.

· Clean your hands frequently and thoroughly - with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub solution.

· Clean your hands after shaking hands or having other close contact with other people - before eating or preparing food, or touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

· Limit your contact with others who may be ill.

· Stay home from work or school - and generally avoid going out in public - if you are sick, remain home for seven days, or until 24 hours after your symptoms resolve, whichever is longer.

· Make sure to take enough fluids while you're sick.

· If you are an employer, encourage your employees to stay home if they are sick.

· If you do develop possible flu symptoms and you want to consult your health care provider, call before going in for an office visit. You may not need to go in, and if you do need to be seen, a time should be set up when you will not risk exposing others to influenza in the waiting room.

· People at risk for severe flu or flu complications should contact their health care provider if they have flu symptoms or have been exposed to people with flu symptoms. Those individuals include people with an underlying medical condition, pregnant women, young children (especially under age two) and people 65 or older.

Dr. Lynfield emphasized that health officials are still concerned about the new flu virus.

"There is a temptation, right now, to assume that any major threat from this new virus has already passed," Dr. Lynfield said. "It is true that, for now, the virus seems to be causing illness that is generally not severe but that doesn't mean we should let down our guard.

"Some people have been severely ill with this virus. Deaths have occurred, although not yet in Minnesota. We also don't know whether this virus will change over time. It could go away over the course of the summer, only to reappear in the fall and cause more severe illness."

Right now, health officials are responding to developments as they occur, carefully monitoring for changes in the severity of the illness and planning for the possibility of more severe disease. "We need to be alert, respond nimbly and be ready for change," Dr. Lynfield said.