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H1N1 returns this flu season

DULUTH, Minn. — H1N1, the nasty flu bug that gave us the pandemic of 2009, is back, the government’s lead health agency says.

A Minnesota infectious disease specialist agrees, but she says it’s too early to tell how big of a factor it will be in the current influenza season.

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“While we are seeing proportionately more cases of H1N1 so far this year, I think it’s way too early to say that that’s going to be the predominant strain,” said Jennifer Heath, immunization outreach nurse specialist for the Minnesota Department of Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health advisory to clinicians on Tuesday, citing “a number of reports of severe respiratory illness among young” in November and December. Many were caused by the virus, specifically known as pH1N1.

The agency reported “multiple” hospitalizations during the two months, many requiring treatment in intensive care units, and some fatalities.

The worldwide 2009 pandemic was first reported in April of that year and began to wane in November of the same year, although the World Health Organization didn’t declare it officially at an end until the following August. Often referred to as swine flu, although it isn’t spread through eating pork, it infected between 43 million and 89 million people between April 2009 and April 2010, the CDC estimated, and resulted in between 8,870 and 18,300 deaths.

It hit children and young adults particularly hard, the CDC noted.

This year’s virus is identical to the one that erupted in 2009, the CDC said. It’s a variation of the virus that caused the massive 1918 epidemic, which was said to infect between 20 percent and 40 percent of the world’s population and resulted in an estimated 50 million deaths, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services archives.

The good news, Heath said, is that this year’s flu vaccine includes protection from H1N1. In 2009, no vaccine was initially available, and the vaccine for H1N1 wasn’t widely distributed in the United States until November.

It’s not too late to get vaccinated, Heath said, especially since this flu season is developing slowly. But she added a caveat.

“We always make sure everyone knows the vaccine’s not 100 percent effective,” Heath said. “You could still come down with the flu.”

Individuals who experience flu symptoms, even if they were vaccinated, should see a health provider right away if they are in high-risk groups, Heath said. Those include pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems, young children and people with underlying health conditions.

Overall, the flu season developed more quickly last year than this year, Heath said. Ultimately that season, 3,067 people were hospitalized with flu in Minnesota, and there were 231 deaths. Both numbers are higher than normal, although Heath added that there’s no such thing as an “average” flu season.

The health department’s weekly flu summary, released Thursday, upgraded the spread of flu in Minnesota from localized to regional for the first time this season. The state had 36 influenza-related hospitalizations during the week that ended Dec. 21, the health department said. One of those was in northeastern Minnesota, which has had four hospitalizations so far this season. During the same week last year, 173 Minnesotans were hospitalized with flu.

Influenza levels in northwestern Wisconsin and statewide are low so far, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported. The most recent data available were for the week that ended Dec. 14.

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