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Minnesota officials urge flu shots knowing there'll be skeptics

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Flu shots at the state fair
Beverly Rogness, right, of the Minnesota Visiting Nurses Association, gives a flu shot to Jack Nessen of Turtle Lake, Wis., at the Minnesota State Fair Thursday.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

Minnesota health authorities say this season's flu vaccine will be more effective than last year, but they acknowledge that getting the message out to the public could be a challenge.

Early vaccine shipments have arrived at some Minnesota health clinics and pharmacies, and the formulation for this season has been updated to include protection against the new flu strain and should be a good match for what Minnesotans will face this year, said Joe Kurland, a vaccine specialist at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that they've got it right," he said. 

That's good news for health professionals who struggled through last season's severe flu outbreak, when the vaccine at the time offered little protection. Some worry last season's woes could lead to fewer people seeking the vaccine this time.

"People say, 'Well, I got the flu anyway or it didn't work.' Well, they don't know it didn't work," said Melissa Beebe, a program manager for wellness services at MVNA, a major provider of public flu clinics. "Maybe they got the flu, but they would have been a lot sicker if they hadn't had the flu shot."

Beebe said she's expecting to hear from more flu vaccine skeptics this year.

Minnesota's last flu season was one of the worst in recent memory — 4,307 people in the state were hospitalized with complications from flu, 706 schools reported outbreaks and 10 children died.

The vaccine wasn't well-matched to the primary flu strain that was infecting people. That's because the virus had mutated and spread widely in the Southern Hemisphere at the same time that the U.S. was making its vaccine to ward off the previous version of the virus. 

By the time the strain arrived in Minnesota last fall it had changed so much, the vaccine was a poor match and it was too late to change it. 

"Last year was rough," said Kurland, who believes the last flu season was so bad it should be easier to convince people to get vaccinated this year. 

"People might say 'I don't want to go through that again; let's get the flu vaccine,'" he said. "I'm really hoping that's the message that comes across." 

Vaccine researchers are trying to come up with a better way to immunize people against flu than the annual shots. Recently, there have been some positive early results testing long-lasting vaccines that are designed to provide immunity from a variety of flu strains. But the experiments are in animals and may not work as well when applied to human subjects. 

Jennifer Heath, a nurse specialist at the Minnesota Department of Health, says the research is exciting. But she says there are many hurdles to clear.

"We are all waiting with bated breath for a universal vaccine," she said. "But it could be several years [before one is available]. So we encourage people to use the tool we have right now," including the current flu shot.

Heath says people can also reduce their chances of getting, or spreading, flu by diligently washing their hands, covering their coughs and staying home when sick.