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Flu cases taking flight

Flu season has taken flight and officials are urging people to get vaccinated.

Minnesota and Wisconsin health officials say it's not too late to get a flu shot. The season can last through April, so getting a flu vaccine now will provide protection for the rest of the season.

Weekly flu statistics by the Minnesota Department of Health show the state's flu status has been elevated from local to regional geographic spread. This means certain areas of the state have seen more flu outbreaks or increases in flu-like illness or lab-confirmed cases of flu.

Wisconsin reports it has had 161 influenza cases to date this season, and 95 influenza-associated hospitalizations, including eight children and 78 adults ages 50 and older. Of those hospitalized with influenza, 63 percent were ages 65 and older.

"Getting a flu shot is still one of the best ways to protect yourself and your family and friends against the flu and potential complications," Wisconsin Health Officer Karen McKeown said.

With flu activity increasing in neighboring states as well, health officials expect cases to continue to go up in the coming weeks.

For example, 36 lab-confirmed cases of the flu were reported in South Dakota for the week ending Jan. 7, nearly doubling the season's total since officially beginning Oct. 1.

National early season flu vaccination rates released in November by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that only 40 percent of people ages 6 months and older had received a flu vaccine. These estimates show a large portion of the population is vulnerable as flu cases continue to increase across the country.

"Start the new year on the right foot by making sure you and your family get your flu vaccine," said Kris Ehresmann, director of the Infectious Disease Division at the Minnesota Department of Health. "The more people who are vaccinated, the more protection we'll have in the community to slow or stop the spread, especially to those at high risk for complications from flu."

Flu can be a serious, life-threatening illness, even for otherwise healthy people. CDC data show that about half of children hospitalized with flu over the last several years did not have an underlying medical condition.

The main flu strain circulating this season is influenza A (H3N2). Adults 65 and older are usually affected more in seasons where H3N2 is the dominant strain. People in this age group may feel young and healthy, but as immune systems age, they have a harder time fighting off the flu, according to Ehresmann. That's why getting a flu vaccine is really important for this age group.

Pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions are also at high risk for complications from flu and should get vaccinated.

Ehresmann noted that this year's flu vaccine appears to be a good match for the viruses circulating.

According to state officials, typical influenza symptoms include headache, fever, chills, cough and body aches, whereas intestinal symptoms are uncommon. Symptoms generally occur one to three days after exposure to an infected person.

To avoid the virus' spread, experts advise those who are ill to cover their coughs, stay home when sick and wash their hands frequently.