Minnesota's health care providers and its public health professionals in particular have a well-deserved, world-class reputation. So it comes as no surprise that the state is a national leader when it comes to influenza vaccination rates.

We rank ninth among the 50 states, according to the most recent statistics, in the percentage of people over six months who get the annual shot -- the broad group for whom vaccination is recommended.

The trouble is that vaccination rates even in front-of-the-pack states like Minnesota still aren't where they should be, meaning a lot of people still choose to take their chances when this dangerous virus accompanies winter's annual arrival. Nationally, 41.8 percent of people over the age of six months were vaccinated for the 2011-2012 flu season. In Minnesota, 47.2 percent of those in the same group got the shot.

The benchmark set by a landmark 10-year federal preventive health effort? Eighty percent for most groups by 2020. We need to do better -- a lot better.

While a next-generation vaccine that permanently protects against all flu strains is needed, the current shot's effectiveness is nothing to sneeze at. This year's vaccine is about 60 percent effective.

The shot remains the best weapon available against a virus whose danger is often dismissed but can quickly bring down even the young and healthy, as shown by the heartbreaking flu-complication deaths of 14-year-old Carly Christenson of St. Louis Park and Max Schwolert, a 17-year-old from Texas who died at a St. Paul hospital.

It's worth noting that teenagers are the only age group in which Minnesota's vaccination rate lags. Nationally, 33.7 percent of kids ages 13-17 got the shot in 2011-12. Just 24.2 percent of Minnesota kids that age were vaccinated during that flu season.

The intensity of this year's flu season is a reminder that complacency -- both on a policy and individual level -- is unacceptable. So far, more than 2,100 flu-related hospitalizations and 75 deaths have been reported in Minnesota this flu season. Last flu season, 33 people died in the state from flu complications.

Federal leadership is needed to organize and fund the difficult, expensive, but doable task of developing the next-generation flu vaccine. The U.S. Senate should follow the House's lead and pass the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act, which would provide critical funding for emergency planning, response and communications.

Previous grants provided through this legislation played a key role in helping Minnesota coordinate vaccine supplies and health-care system availability this flu season. To their credit, all eight of Minnesota's House representatives voted for the legislation last week, with Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen co-authoring a key provision with a Democratic colleague.

Individuals also have a role to play. The flu season can last well into the spring, which means there's plenty of time to dispense with excuses and get the shot.

One common reason for avoidance is the mistaken belief the shot gives you the flu. Not true. The injectable shot contains "pieces of inactivated flu proteins -- and it's impossible for them to 'cause' flu,'' according to a Mayo Clinic statement on Monday. The nasal spray contains a weakened virus that can't multiply or cause illness.

Fears of a mercury-based vaccine preservative -- a common reason parents don't get kids vaccinated -- are also misplaced. Parents and others who are concerned can ask providers for thimerosol-free preparations of the vaccine.

Another common excuse is fear of influenza "superbugs" -- strains of the virus resistant to treatment. But resistance concerns focus on the virus's response to drugs such as Tamiflu that are used to treat influenza once it develops. Superbug fears are actually a reason to get the shot to prevent the flu from occurring.

Influenza's cute "flu bug" nickname unfortunately causes many to dismiss its danger, but influenza remains an age-old public health nemesis. This year's troubling outbreak is yet another reminder that we can't let our collective guard down against it.


An editorial of the Star Tribune, Minneapolis.