October 18, 2010
State health officials confirm flu death in elderly woman
They urge health care workers, others who take care of the elderly to get vaccinated
State health officials are bracing for what they say could be a difficult year for the elderly in coping with influenza.
A woman in her 80s from southeastern Minnesota died last week from complications due to influenza. The Minnesota Department of Health Public Health Laboratory has confirmed that she had the A/H3 strain of influenza virus, a strain which has caused sporadic outbreaks in long-term care facilities in Minnesota and other states over the summer and early fall.
Earlier this month, another woman in her 80s, from the metropolitan area, died more than a month after contracting the A/H3 strain of the influenza virus. Both women had been residents of long-term care facilities.
“This may be a difficult year in terms of severe influenza infections in the elderly,” said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist with MDH. “In years when there has been primarily H3 influenza A circulating, we’ve seen higher rates of serious illness, particularly in the elderly.”
Lynfield said it is extremely important for those who care for, live with or frequently visit the elderly to be vaccinated for influenza as a measure to protect the elderly.
That concern was shared by Kristen Ehresmann, director of the infectious disease division at MDH. “While Minnesotans over 65 have among the highest rates of influenza vaccination in the nation, and we do recommend vaccination for the elderly, it is important to remember that they may not respond as readily as younger individuals to the vaccine,” she said. “So 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.”
In addition, Lynfield said, “All health care workers in Minnesota should be vaccinated for influenza.” This includes health care workers in clinics, hospitals and long-term care facilities. Health care workers and others should stay home and limit contacts with others when they have symptoms of influenza. A recent survey indicated that overall about 70 percent of Minnesota’s health care workers get vaccinated for influenza. “But we can and we must do better,” Ehresmann said.
Health officials said that they have not yet seen increased influenza activity among the general population. It is not unusual to see sporadic cases and outbreaks among those in institutional settings in early fall. A cluster of A/H3 cases was reported last month in a long-term care facility in Minnesota. Clusters were also reported in a day care and a college in Iowa in July.
Each year, the strains of influenza virus circulating around the world change just enough that the influenza vaccine needs to change. Influenza vaccines always contain three strains of antigens that provide protection against the three strains most likely to be circulating. This year’s vaccine contains the 2009 A/H1N1 strain, an A/H3N2 strain and a B strain. Health officials do not yet know whether the A/H3 viruses that circulated in the two long-term care facilities match the vaccine A/H3N2 type.
Ehresmann said this most recent influenza case serves as a reminder to all Minnesotans that vaccination is the best way to protect yourself and others against influenza – and now is a good time to get vaccinated. “There are adequate supplies of vaccine this year,” she said.
Influenza vaccination is now recommended for everyone six months and older unless they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. It is especially important that those at high risk for serious complications from influenza be vaccinated. These include pregnant women, seniors, young children and those with chronic medical conditions.
Children under six months of age cannot receive flu vaccine, so household contacts and caretakers should be vaccinated to protect the very young.
Flu seasons are unpredictable and can be severe. CDC estimates of annual flu-associated deaths in the U.S. between 1976 and 2006 range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people. Each year, according to CDC estimates, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized due to influenza.
More information on influenza and vaccination can be found on the MDH website at www.health.state.mn.us. This site also has a listing of public flu vaccination clinics. To find the influenza vaccination clinic nearest you, go to www.mdhflu.com and click on “Find a flu shot clinic.”
The symptoms of influenza, which tend to come on suddenly, can include a sore throat, coughing, fever, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. People who become severely ill with influenza-like symptoms should see a physician. Influenza is caused by a virus and antibiotics are not effective against it.
During flu season, it is important for everyone, shots or not, to do his or her part to avoid spreading influenza by following these guidelines:
- Do your best to stay healthy. Get plenty of rest, physical activity and healthy eating.
- Stay home from school or work if you have a respiratory infection. Avoid exposing yourself to others who are sick with flu-like illness.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue whenever you cough or sneeze, then throw the tissue away. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your sleeve.
- Clean surfaces you touch frequently, such as doorknobs, water faucets, refrigerator handles and telephones.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water or with an alcohol based, waterless hand sanitizer.
Dr. Ruth Lynfield