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What you need to know about Minnesota's flu season so far

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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 Aug. 27, 2015.
Courtney Perry for MPR News 2015

Flu season is full swing in Minnesota. Between October and December, more than a thousand Minnesotans were hospitalized with the flu — and about a third of those cases cropped up in the week before New Year's. 

On Thursday, the Minnesota Department of Health releases its latest weekly report. MPR News's Cathy Wurzer spoke with Kris Ehresmann about the flu season so far. Ehresmann directs the Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control division at the Minnesota Department of Health. 

Comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

If you had to grade the severity of the flu season so far, how would you rank it?

Definitely this year is a severe season. In fact, what we're seeing in terms of our indicators suggest that it's mimicking the 2014-15 season, which is the most severe season we've seen in recent years. So it's definitely a significant influenza season in Minnesota. 

Did we see this coming -- in terms of this strain of flu, and then the subsequent vaccine used to battle this strain?

The reason that it's such an effective virus and the fact that we're dealing with it year after year means that we can never completely predict it. But we do look at what happens in the southern hemisphere because they experience their flu season before we do. Australia definitely had a severe season. 

In terms of the vaccine effectiveness, Australia's found a very low vaccine effectiveness against the particular H3 strain. The feeling here in the U.S. is that we saw about a 30 percent effectiveness last year and we're thinking that may be the case this year. 

Obviously, that is not ideal. That is much lower than what we've seen for other things that we vaccinate against, like measles, which is 95 to 98 percent effective. And I think that's why so many of us in public health are saying we need a better and different influenza vaccine if we're going to be successful in battling this virus. 

Do you recommend people still get the vaccine even though the effectiveness isn't great?

Absolutely. What I tell people is that while I'm not thrilled with the estimated 30 percent effectiveness, I can guarantee them that if they don't get the vaccine, they have zero effectiveness and zero protection. 

And we have found that even if the vaccine doesn't protect you from getting influenza, it can help to make it less severe. So there's definitely reasons to be vaccinated. 

Have we seen the peak yet?

We haven't. But we're seeing a great deal of activity, so I think that will have an earlier peak than we've had in some recent years. 

What about complications? You do hear of younger people dying of flu and their families are absolutely shocked that it happened.

Influenza can strike absolutely healthy people and take them down, and we do see deaths. We've seen about 12 pediatric deaths nationally at this point. And in most cases, those are healthy kids. And so that's why we encourage people to be alert that influenza can have severe complications.

For some people, obviously, it's a miserable week, and that's no good, either. But you do need to be very attentive with flu, because it didn't get to be the virus that it is without causing a lot of problems.