Minnesota has reached the tail end of a moderate flu season — welcome relief after 2012-13, one of the deadliest flu outbreaks in years.
The state has recorded 1,484 hospitalizations from influenza so far this year, compared to more than 3,000 last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Health's weekly update. No one under age 18 has died from the flu, even though young people are more susceptible to H1N1, the most common strain this year. (H1N1 was the strain that caused the swine flu pandemic in 2009, which claimed an estimated 12,000 lives across the country.)
Cases of influenza B spiked modestly last week, but that is typical this time of year, according to Health Department senior epidemiologist Karen Martin. It's still not too late to get a flu shot, she added.
This year, for the first time, Minnesotans could get a "quadrivalent'' vaccine, which protects against two influenza A strains and two B strains — one more B strain than the traditional shot. Whether that explains the lower number of reported cases of influenza B is tough to say, because what people catch mostly depends on which strains are circulating in the population, according to Jennifer Heath, an immunization outreach specialist with the department.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't recommend one vaccine over the other, but Heath said she heard many people requesting the quadrivalent vaccine this year.
As the season winds down, the Health Department will stop reporting new cases in a few weeks, when the flu season unofficially ends. Martin said state officials will issue updates if they spot unusual developments, such as an outbreak at the Minnesota State Fair, where there was a modest flu scare in 2012.
Next up: At the federal level, Martin said, epidemiologists will start monitoring flu strains hitting the southern hemisphere during their winter months in an effort to predict what strains of the virus might come north next winter. But it's not as easy as it sounds.
"Influenza is notoriously unpredictable," Martin said. "So you can prepare, but something new always happens."
Rebecca Harrington is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.