Minnesota Department of Health officials have warned for several weeks now that Minnesota will likely experience deaths from H1N1 influenza. Today the agency announced the state's first fatality -- a child from the Twin Cities area.
For privacy reasons, Health Department officials won't say much about the child who died.
This is what they would reveal -- the death occurred late last week after the child had spent a short amount of time in the hospital.
Epidemiologist Aaron DeVries says the patient was particularly vulnerable to complications from the flu, due to other medical problems.
"This is a child who had multiple underlying health conditions, and had been quite ill much of the child's life," DeVries said. "It was not an infant."
DeVries says the child's death underscores the importance of taking every precaution possible to prevent the pandemic flu from spreading. He says Minnesotans will not only protect themselves, they'll help vulnerable people as well.
"Unlike typical seasonal influenza, when we are able to surround the most vulnerable individuals of our population with a vaccine to protect against seasonal influenza, ... currently there's not a vaccine that's available," he said.
So far, Minnesota has had 274 confirmed cases of H1N1 influenza, including this death. That puts the state's fatality rate at approximately 3 deaths per 1,000 illnesses.
Greg Filice, chief of infectious diseases at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Minneapolis, says Minnesota's flu death rate is very close to the national rate.
"Given the number of cases we've had and the experience nationwide, we're right about where we should be," said Filice. "Not that any death is good, but we knew we would have them."
Most of the people who have contracted H1N1 so far have experienced relatively mild illness. But the virus can be very serious, especially among pregnant women, young children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.
Michael Osterholm directs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He says there's a temptation to look for the complicating factor that might explain why these flu deaths occurred.
But he says the reality is that the virus is very unpredictable, and it doesn't always act in ways that make sense.
"I wouldn't take any comfort in the fact that the deaths have been occurring to date largely in those with underlying risk factors. We're seeing more and more deaths occurring in people who have none of those," he said.
Osterholm says he is beginning to think of this flu outbreak as moderate in severity, rather than mild. That position is shared by the head of the World Health Organization, who recently declared the outbreak a pandemic.
Just in the past week, the number of hospitalizations associated with H1N1 flu has jumped considerably. The Health Department's Aaron DeVries says there are now about 30 to 40 new cases each day in Minnesota, and the majority of them have required at least some hospitalization.
"Many of them are relatively short hospitalizations, often for dehydration or support for their underlying health problems, such as support for their asthma, if that was their underlying health problem," said DeVries.
But for now, DeVries says the Health Department doesn't have any evidence that the severity of the flu outbreak has changed. So the agency plans to stick with its current surveillance plan.
That includes testing patients who are hospitalized with flu-like symptoms, and sick patients who are especially vulnerable to complications from the flu. They also will test sick health care workers and patients who work closely with swine.