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Novel H1N1 flu 'widespread' in Minnesota

By Don Davis

State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - More than 30 Minnesota schools report significant flu outbreaks, little more than a week after most districts began classes.

The flu outbreak is spotty around the state, with some districts reporting few problems. The same is true for colleges.

"Novel H1N1 has continued to cause illness in Minnesota all through the summer, and we have been anticipating a possible second wave of this illness," state Health Commissioner Dr. Sanne Magnan said Wednesday. "We strongly suspect that may be starting to happen now."

Federal health officials Wednesday called the flu "widespread" in the state, the highest classification by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The ranking is based in part on the experience reported by schools. They are to report to the state Health Department when flu-like illnesses top 5 percent of the total enrollment or any classroom has three or more students absent with flu symptoms.

State officials also have received numerous reports from health-care clinics that flu is widespread.

Most flu cases now are thought to be H1N1, originally called swine flu, health officials say. The flu strain, which is causing a pandemic worldwide, began to spread in the spring and continued to make people sick through the summer.

During the pre-Labor Day Minnesota State Fair, more than 120 4-H members and some adult leaders were sent home when some became sick with H1N1and others were exposed to the ill members.

The pandemic flu affects more young people than those older than 50. Health officials say they think that is because older Americans developed some immunity by coming in contact with a similar flu strain in years past.

However, even if younger people tend to catch the flu more often, it often hits the elderly with other health problems harder.

Vaccinations are expected to be available next month.

A separate vaccination already is available in most areas for the common seasonal flu. Since the two flu strains are different, separate vaccinations are needed.

Minnesota only is counting H1N1 cases that result in hospitalization, with 272 confirmed. Three Minnesotans have died from H1N1.

Health professionals do not recommend that everyone with flu-like symptoms see a doctor.

Symptoms for both types of flu may include fever, cough, sore throat, headache, chills and fatigue. Vomiting and diarrhea may accompany the pandemic flu.

Health officials emphasize that sick people should stay home and people can avoid getting the flu by taking simple steps like thoroughly washing hands and covering coughs and sneezes with a sleeve or tissue.

"Right now, our first line of defense is the basic personal protection measures we have been emphasizing since last spring," State Epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield said.

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Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.