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Gearing up for battle: What Australia's tough flu season means for us

Better not wait too long to get your flu shot—we may be in for a rough ride this season. And it could come early.

Australia is just getting over a potent flu season that struck early and sickened more than twice as many people as usual—causing some alarming deaths in recent weeks, including an 8-year-old girl and a 30-year-old father.

Nothing is ever a sure bet with influenza, but experts warn that sometimes the United States gets in its flu season what Australia got in its flu season, which is just coming to an end.

"It's possible," said Karen Martin, an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health. "It's the tail end of a bad influenza season down there. Sometimes that correlates with what we see here and sometimes it doesn't."

The Health Department will start what it calls "active surveillance" next week, gathering data from labs around the state, noting all hospitalized cases of flu and mapping flu outbreaks in schools and long-term care facilities.

The flu vaccine has to be produced well before flu season, and usually includes three or four flu strains. "They make an educated guess," she said. "It will be awhile before we know if it's a well-matched vaccine."

In Australia, Influenza A (H3N2) was the predominant flu virus this year, and 81 percent of the deaths were caused by that strain.

Vaccines in the United States this season are designed to protect against two A strains (H1N1 and H3N2) and up to two B strains (B/Victoria lineage and B/Yamagata lineage), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Now is a great time to get a vaccination," Martin said. "We are seeing some (flu) activity and we expect more as winter approaches." There is plenty of vaccine now available at clinics, pharmacies and walk-in clinics, she said. It takes two weeks for the vaccine to become effective.

Peak flu months in Minnesota are December through February, but flu can hit hard early, or as late in the season as May, she said. "The thing with the flu is we never know when the peak months will happen, there can be a lot of activity on both sides of that (December to February timeframe)," she said.

Since 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that everyone 6 months of age and older receive a flu vaccine each season.

During flu season, it's always helpful to wash your hands a lot, stay home from work if you're sick, and keep your kids home from school if they're sick to avoid spreading the virus, Martin said.

"Now is a good time to get vaccinated, but it's never really too late," she said.