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Mayo Clinic official predicts worst flu season in 30 years
ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) — This could be one of the worst flu seasons in 30 years, with thousands more people dying than in a normal year because they failed to get vaccinated, according to the director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group. (Related item: Four Colorado children die from flu)

"This will probably be the worst flu season we've had in several decades," said infectious disease specialist Gregory Poland. "My guess is that we'll be in the 50,000 to 70,000 deaths this year due to this strain."

In an average year, the disease infects up to 20% of the U.S. population, killing about 36,000 Americans and hospitalizing 114,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state Health Department reports that since 1997 an average of 1,156 people in Minnesota have died of flu or pneumonia each year. As of Tuesday, there had been one confirmed case in the state this season, a spokesman said.

Medicine designers in the United States decide which strains of flu to include in the vaccine based on what happens in other parts of the world. They select the prevalent strains and create a vaccine to protect against them several months before the U.S. flu season.

This year, there was "drift" in one of the three strains included: H3n2a. "What that means is the virus has mutated from a strain that we isolated in March and February," he said.

So the vaccine will protect against the other two strains, and partially against the currently circulating H3n2a, or Fujian strain. Getting a flu vaccination, Poland said, "cuts your chance of dying this year — from any cause (flu strains) — by 50%."

Health Department spokesman Doug Schultz said that since the 1976-77 season, there have been nine flu seasons when there was strain circulating that was not covered by that year's vaccine. This season is one of them, he said.

He said the Health Department is also expecting an unusually severe flu season, but has not quantified the severity as Poland had. Doctors at the CDC have also said they are preparing for an usually harsh season.

If people don't get vaccinated but get symptoms, medical attention within 24 hours allows anti-viral medications to prevent or decrease illness.

Young children, caretakers of children and health-care workers are urged to get vaccinated, Poland said.

It takes just 10 to 14 days to produce immunity with vaccine. People still can get vaccinated, Poland said.

So far this season, the outbreaks were strongest in Texas and Colorado in October and early November. Most of the country has had only sporadic flu infections.

This is the season for the virus to spread. Poland said there are people coming to his house in Rochester this year from four other parts of the world, a virus-spreading scene repeated across the nation.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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