Flu-related hospitalizations hit a 3-year high in February

Up to 40 people per week were being admitted to hospitals for a strain of flu resistant to this year’s vaccinations.

Every year, scientists battle to stay one step ahead of an ever-evolving flu bug, but it appears science is losing this year.

During February, a flurry of University students and faculty reported to Boynton Health Service’s urgent care with influenza, and a significant portion suffered from a different virus than the three strains included in this year’s vaccination shot.

Prior to February, Minnesota endured a mild flu season, and 90 percent of reported influenza cases matched the vaccine, Kristen Ehresmann, immunization program manager at the Minnesota Department of Health, said in a press release. But the outbreak of a new flu strain has brought about an ailing University community.

David Golden, Boynton’s director of public health and communication, said two or three cases have tested positive for influenza in Boynton’s urgent care every day during February.

In Minnesota, influenza-related hospitalizations reached more than 40 per week at the end of February, a three-year high, according to Minnesota Department of Health statistics. Last year’s high came two weeks earlier and was about 30 per week.

“I don’t know that we’ve seen (the peak),” Ehresmann said. “We’re continuing to see an increase. Nothing has quite leveled off yet.”

Minnesota hasn’t reported an especially high number of influenza cases in historical context, she said, but it is up from recent years, which were relatively mild. However, a new strain emerging in a high frequency at this point in the season is unusual, Ehresmann said. A comparable case occurred in 1997, she said.

The exact percentage of mismatches won’t be known until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzes strains Minnesota submitted for testing, Ehresmann said.

Even though this year’s vaccine isn’t a perfect match, the immunized still enjoy some cross-protection.

At the University, about 40 percent of students have received a flu vaccination, according to a 2007 student health survey. Golden said a majority of students reporting to Boynton haven’t been vaccinated.

Ehresmann said the new strain is an old virus that slowly evolved through a series of small transformations.

“The key thing to keep in mind is that the virus continues to mutate; it’s constantly shifting and changing,” she said. “I mean, that’s what makes it influenza and that’s what makes it effective.”

While college-aged people are less susceptible to the virus overall, close living conditions and constant contact help spread the illness.

Ehresmann said practicing good hygiene, getting vaccinated and staying home after falling ill go a long way toward lowering the impacts of influenza.

About 1,000 free vaccination shots remain at the University, Golden said.