Nov. 3—MANKATO — Influenza cases are starting to pop up in the Mankato area, and a recent study suggested seasonal vaccines are helpful at limiting more than just the flu.
The study in the American Heart Association's Stroke medical journal found influenza-like illnesses are associated with increased stroke risks, while vaccines appeared to lower the risk.
Links between influenza and strokes are more reasons for why getting vaccinated is important ahead of flu season's peak, said Dr. Jennifer Johnson, family medicine doctor at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato.
"Anything we can do to reduce the risk of respiratory infections helps reduce the risks of stroke for those individuals," she said. "The influenza vaccine is a great way to do that."
The observed decrease in stroke risks was particularly strong in people between 18-44 years old. Although strokes are still rare in the age group, Johnson said, they can be devastating when they do occur.
Most strokes are ischemic, meaning they occur when blood flow to the brain gets blocked. Researchers theorize the flu causes the body to go into a hypercoagulable state making blood clots more common — the same theory could explain why COVID-19 is associated with increased stroke risk.
Flu seasons vary greatly in severity depending on many factors, including what strains circulate and how well the available shots match those strains. Mitigation strategies put in place to curb COVID-19 cases in fall 2020 and 2021 contributed to two straight muted influenza seasons.
The Southern Hemisphere's flu season can be used as a bellwether for what to expect in the U.S. With the Southern Hemisphere having a significant recent flu season, the holiday season coming up soon here, and peak season coming around December and January, Johnson said, people should seek the flu shot sooner rather than later.
"It's much more important for people to get the influenza vaccines when we're expecting that bigger influenza year," she said.
Although it's still early, this flu season is already outpacing last season in severity. Minnesota had 15 hospitalizations from the flu through mid-October this year, compared to only one hospitalization up to that point last year.
Dr. Katie Anderson, an urgent care doctor at Mankato Clinic, started seeing the first positive flu cases over the last couple of weeks. Most people can manage the flu from home, she said, but shortness of breath and persistently high fevers are signs to seek medical attention.
Getting vaccinated soon will ensure people have protection ahead of the holiday season. People can receive their flu vaccines and bivalent COVID-19 boosters on the same visits to their clinics or pharmacies, Anderson said.
"It's definitely not too late to get vaccinated now," she said. "I would recommend getting it as soon as possible, and your local clinic should have it and any of the pharmacies should have it."
Milder flu seasons during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in lower percentages of people seeking vaccines. The percentage of vaccinated people between ages 6 months and 17 years dropped from 64% to 58% from the 2019-2020 season to 2021-2022, according to a National Foundation for Infectious Diseases survey.
Older people, those with chronic diseases and pregnant women are at higher risk for severe influenza complications. Despite this, the survey found fewer than half of pregnant women received the flu vaccine last season.
Vaccines not only limit the pregnant woman's flu risks, Johnson said, they also provide a degree of protection to the baby.
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