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Combating a 'widespread' flu

Vaccine shots, hand washing and thermometers are some of the most important tools in fighting flu activity now classified as "widespread" in Minnesota, according to county public health officials.

Cases of influenza have been reported in at least half of the state's regions, which fits the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria for "widespread," according to a news release from the Minnesota Department of Health. Not all of the flu activity is H1N1, but MDH officials believe the new strain of flu that appeared last spring is probably playing a role in the upswing.

Wadena County Public Health Director Karen Nelson said that as of a Wednesday conference call, there are 271 lab-confirmed cases of H1N1 in Minnesota. Eighteen are pregnant women. Seventy percent are under age 25. Three people have died so far, she said, including two children and one elderly person.

The actual number of people with H1N1 is actually much higher, but only those people who are sick enough to be hospitalized are being tested, Nelson said. The median hospital stay has been three days.

There have likely been H1N1 cases in Wadena County, Nelson said, but the state doesn't track the numbers by county.

The vaccine should be out in early October according to what she is hearing, she said. The vaccine is an excellent match to the virus and it looks like the 18 to 64 years old in clinical trials are having a good immune response in eight to 10 days. There have been reports that only one shot may be necessary, but that hasn't been confirmed yet, she said.

The immunizations will not have a cost, Nelson said. However, people are asked to bring their insurance cards when immunization schedules are announced in case the companies pay for at least part of the vaccine.

Targeted groups for the H1N1 flu shot include pregnant women, people who live with or care for children younger than 6 months, health care and emergency medical services personnel, people between 6 months and 24 years old, and people ages 25 to 64 who are at higher risk because of chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems, according to the CDC Web site.

They are hoping to have the high-risk population vaccinated by Christmas, Nelson said. The rest of the population will be protected by preventing the spread of the flu among the high-risk group.

Nelson advised people to wash their hands frequently, cover their cough, stay home when they're sick and avoid contact with those who are ill. She recommends employers encourage their employees to stay home when they are ill and to send them home if they come to work ill.

Symptoms of H1N1 include a temperature of more than 100 degrees, coughing, sore throat and muscle aches, Nelson said. Vomiting and diarrhea are rare symptoms.

A thermometer is a necessary screening tool for people to have at home, she said. Parents should check their kids' temperatures before sending them to school when they're sick, because if they have a temperature the school will send them home.

Nelson also advises people to have fever reducing medicine at home and a one-week supply of food and water in case they become ill. If you have symptoms of the flu call your doctor to find out if you should come and be checked out at the hospital, she said.

Public Health is preparing for the worst but hoping for the best, she said.

"Hopefully people can keep well and it doesn't get worse," Nelson said.