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Whatever happened to...? H1N1 not gone, only forgotten

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It's been months since we've heard anything about the H1N1 virus, more popularly and incorrectly known as the swine flu.

The 2009 pandemic was declared officially over this summer by the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization. But the virus, said Dr. Timothy Burke, an infectious disease specialist at Essentia Health, is "forgotten but not gone."

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From April 2009 to April 2010, Minnesota reported 63 deaths from H1N1. In Northeastern Minnesota, 129 people were hospitalized for illness related to H1N1 during the same time period. In the Twin Cities area, 1,025 were hospitalized, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Schools dealt with hundreds of absences at the peak of the illness and people fought for the H1N1 vaccine.

The virus is still out there affecting people, Burke said. H1N1 strains are being identified, as are two other types of flu -- a coexistence that is typical in years between pandemic years, he said. Flu shots this year included a component for H1N1, but that's not why we've avoided another pandemic wave.

"It would be nice to think that was the case, but what we're seeing here is viral behavior," Burke said. "There are people who make whole careers studying this virus and trying to do battle with it. Even the most authoritative flu experts can get fooled. That's the nature of the beast. It's unpredictable."

So will we see another wave this year? Probably not, according to Burke. But don't rule out next year, or the year after that.

"If the past can predict the future, and it easily can with the flu, there will be future pandemics," Burke said. But those may or may not include the H1N1 virus. People need to be vigilant with their yearly flu shots, Burke said.

"The public's attention span is rather short," he said, but viruses live long lives.

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