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Swine flu still a risk, but many adults are not vaccinated

DULUTH - If a third wave of the H1N1 virus sweeps across the Northland, it will find an adult population that has mostly not bothered to get vaccinated. The low rate among young adults is a special cause for concern, public health officials say.

More than a month after vaccine for the so-called swine flu became available to the general public, just less than 14 percent of St. Louis County residents have been vaccinated through public or private immunizations, according to Minnesota Department of Health data.

The percentage jumps to 63 percent for children

6 months to five years, one of the target audiences.

Health officials had hoped for more people to be immunized by now. But considering the delay in getting the vaccination, and the speed with which the epidemic faded, they say they're generally satisfied with the numbers.

The exception is among 19- to 24-year-olds.

Only about 8 percent of young adults have been immunized in St. Louis County, despite the fact that the swine flu has hit young adults hard.

Of the 246,000 people hospitalized in the U.S. with the H1N1 virus in 2009, 39 percent were in the 18- to 24-year-old age bracket, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control.

Immunization rates in the young-adult age group, in the single digits, are the lowest of any statewide. That concerns public health officials.

"It's an age group we're trying to target now," said Terri Allen, Carlton County public health nurse supervisor. "But it's also an age that thinks they're invulnerable to anything like the flu.''

In St. Louis and Carlton Counties, clinics continue to be scheduled and will be "as long as people keep showing up,'' said Libby Welsh, nursing supervisor for the county.

County clinics started with 100 or so people showing up in early December. After some news coverage and prodding by public health officials, the number jumped as high as 1,000 per clinic. Now, about 300 are showing up each day clinics are offered, Welsh said.

"That's a good sign that some people are taking this seriously. We're going to keep going until the public tells us they aren't interested,'' she said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this month that pediatric deaths from the pandemic virus are three times higher than the average for the past three seasons. Flu activity peaked on Oct. 24, much earlier than the February peaks of the most recent flu seasons. The CDC pointed out that multiple waves were seen during the three most recent pandemics, emphasizing the importance of vaccination even now.

"The fact that pediatric deaths are three times higher with H1N1 than the season flu should encourage parents to still get their children immunized,'' Allen said, noting more than 40 percent of children still haven't been vaccinated.

In another odd influenza twist, health officials are stymied why they are seeing almost no sign of the usual winter outbreak of season influenza.

"Nothing. We should be getting into the peak of it now and we're not seeing any.'' Welsh said. "We don't know why that is.''