Flu shots are more important than ever this year with flu cases up and harder to get rid of than in the past. -- Herald file photo

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Second Minnesota teen dies of flu in 10 days; officials urge shots

Published 9:48am Wednesday, January 9, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — A 14-year-old girl from St. Louis Park died of complications from influenza Tuesday afternoon, the second otherwise healthy teenager killed by the disease in Minnesota in 10 days.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health on Tuesday again urged all Minnesotans to get flu shots to protect them from the virus, which has killed five people and hospitalized at least 600 in the state since October.

The girl, identified by her family’s church and on Facebook memorial sites as Carly Christenson, a ninth-grader at St. Louis Park High School, was admitted to Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis on Christmas Eve and died at 12:40 p.m. Tuesday.

Kris Ehresmann, head of the infectious diseases and vaccine program at the state Health Department, said she could not confirm reports that the girl, who died of influenza Type A, had received a flu shot.

Ehresmann stressed that the relatively rare deaths of people who were vaccinated should not lead to the conclusion that the shots are pointless. The vaccine is considered 60 percent effective against the flu in healthy adults, she said.

It “is not 100 percent effective, so, sadly, it is possible to have a situation in which someone vaccinated develops influenza,” Ehresmann said. “We still are recommending vaccination” for everyone, especially vulnerable groups such as the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.

Carly’s parents, Sean and Sandy Christenson, were in mourning Tuesday night and declined to speak to the media. Their church, Westwood Lutheran in St. Louis Park, said on its Facebook page that Carly’s parents and her 12-year-old brother, Wyatt, were with her when she died. Candles will be lit and prayers said in her memory at the church’s regular Wednesday evening service at 6:30 p.m. Her funeral was being planned for Saturday.

St. Louis Park High School, where Carly played on a junior varsity basketball team, said on its website that it has deployed counselors, social workers and other staff to help grieving students. It canceled all of Tuesday night’s girls’ basketball games. “The high school and entire school district send our thoughts and prayers to her family and friends,” the school said.

Official confirmation of the state’s fifth flu death of the season normally would not have come until Thursday, but because Carly’s struggle with the flu had been followed by a Twin Cities TV station for several days before her death, the agency decided to confirm it Tuesday, Ehresmann said.

The awful exceptions

On Dec. 30, another otherwise healthy teenager, Max Schwolert, 17, of Texas, died of flu complications at a St. Paul hospital. Schwolert, who had been visiting relatives in Wisconsin, apparently developed a staph infection along with the flu, and the combination accelerated rapidly, turning ever more deadly, family members said. He had not had a flu shot.

Even in otherwise healthy people, “what can happen is that influenza serves as a gateway for a secondary infection like pneumonia or staph, and the severity increases rapidly,” Ehresmann said.

“Sadly, we do see some pediatric deaths from the flu and deaths in otherwise healthy young people every year,” she said. “That in no way diminishes this child’s tragic death, but it does happen. We continue to say — get vaccinated.”

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, most of the country is experiencing higher-than-average levels of flulike illnesses, “nearing what have been peak levels … during moderately severe seasons in the past.”

In its latest report on nationwide influenza, issued Dec. 29, the CDC said that the proportion of people seeing doctors for flulike symptoms is above the national baseline for the fourth week in a row. Twenty-nine states, including Minnesota, are now reporting “high activity,” the report said.

Although this year’s flu strains do not appear to be more virulent than usual, the flu has spread especially rapidly in Minnesota this year, There have been more than 30 outbreaks at state nursing facilities and more than 130 at schools.

On Monday, some Minnesota hospitals, especially those in the southern part of the state, which has been hardest hit by influenza, tightened visitor restrictions for the first time since 2009 to prevent further spread.


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