Infants, pregnant women, senior citizens and people with chronic health conditions are prone to catch the influenza virus. But according to health officials, school-age children are some of the primary spreaders of infection.
"Kids congregate," said Kathy Wick, supervisor of the Disease Prevention and Control program for the Dakota County Public Health Department, located in Apple Valley. "There are a lot of opportunities for exposure, especially considering that kids are not always the best at following the preventative measures."
But three months into the flu season, Independent School District 196 nurse Shelley Kilgore said she has documented significantly fewer cases of Influenza Like Illness, or ILI, than last year. Someone with ILI has a body temperature of more than 100 degrees, and a sore throat or cough.
Wick said peak flu season typically is between January and March. But last year, mid-October was the peak for cases of ILI in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district. Throughout the United States there was an outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus, said Jane Schleisman, the district's lead health services nurse.
In October 2009, District 196 reported 9,655 illness-related student absence days. In October 2010, there were 1,224.
"An 88 percent decrease is pretty significant," Schleisman said. "I have no doubt that last year's flu outbreak played a major role in determining that number."
Kilgore said the decreased number of illnesses could be due to public health education initiatives in schools and the community, after last year's H1N1 flu outbreak.
"Hand-washing is the big thing," she said. "School kids haven't been trained well enough to know that coughing, sneezing and blowing their noses without washing hands is the biggest way things spread."
The 2010-11 flu vaccine also contains antigens for H1N1 and flu viruses A and B, the most common varieties, she said.
"People are much more aware this year, and parents have taken greater steps to get their children vaccinated," Kilgore said.
Documentation has become a major part of the battle against the flu in Apple Valley schools and in the district as a whole.
"We ask our nurses to write daily reports on the number of ILI calls they get," said Schleisman.
The reports are analyzed at the Minnesota Department of Public Health to help the state track trends, she said.
In the event children or parents do get sick, experts advise to stay home to prevent spreading the illness. And, Wick said, it's never too late to get vaccinated.
"Too many people think that if they haven't been vaccinated by October, it's too late," she said. "That is simply not true."
Dakota County has a limited supply of free flu shots for underinsured and uninsured children and adults this flu season. To find a flu vaccine clinic, call the public health hotline at 952-891-7999 or visit http://www.co.dakota.mn.us/HealthFamily/HealthyLiving/Immunizations/FluClinics.