Two more children have died in Minnesota, and flu cases in the state have spiked since mid-January, especially at schools.
News that two more Minnesota children have died from influenza created a new wave of anxiety for many parents Thursday and prompted a push to provide flu shots for those who haven't yet been vaccinated.
Children's Hospitals and Clinics announced plans to offer free flu shots in St. Paul on Saturday, while other flu-shot clinics were adding staff in case of an upsurge in customers.
State officials insisted that there is no evidence that the flu virus is more dangerous this year than usual.
But it has been more widespread in Minnesota, with flu cases spiking dramatically in the past few weeks, especially at schools, officials said.
On Thursday, the state health department announced that an 8-year-old and a 17-month-old had died as a result of influenza, just a week after the death of 8-year-old Lucio Satar of St. Paul.
The latest victims, who were not identified, were from Hennepin and Isanti counties.
None of the children who died had been vaccinated for influenza, and health officials said they were making the news public in part to encourage parents to have their children vaccinated.
"We are deeply saddened by these deaths, and our sympathies go out to the families of these children," said Dianne Mandernach, Minnesota's health commissioner. She said the flu "always has the potential to be a very serious illness, even a killer."
In the last few weeks, the number of flu outbreaks in schools has more than doubled in Minnesota, which is among the states with the highest flu rates in the nation.
So far, the Health Department has reported 224 flu outbreaks in Minnesota schools this season, more than were reported during the entire 2005-06 flu season.
'Bad luck of the draw'
Flu-related deaths among children are extremely rare. Nationwide, an estimated 40 children a year die from influenza complications.
So far this year, 13 children have died of the flu, including the three in Minnesota, the Health Department said.
"Three of the 13 in Minnesota, that seems unusual but we think it's just the bad luck of the draw, a statistical fluke," Richard Danila, the deputy state epidemiologist, told the Associated Press. "There's nothing unusual about the children. They didn't know each other. There's no [link], nothing unusual about the virus."
Kris Ehresmann, who heads the immunization program at the Health Department, says people forget how dangerous the flu can be.
"It's easy to think when we've had mild years that influenza is kind of, well, not a big deal," she said. "And while we don't want to cause panic, we do have to be respectful of the power that this virus has."
For some parents, the news scared them into action. Janet Senarighi of Mounds View went to two clinics Thursday evening in search of a flu shot for her 3-year-old daughter, Sophia.
"This brought it to reality," Senarighi said as she waited in the lobby of the Minnesota Visiting Nurse Agency (MVNA) in Minneapolis. "I want to do everything that I can to protect her."