The number of flu-related cases is way up over last year, Nebraska and Iowa officials say, and the worst likely is still to come.

Still, they said, you can protect yourself by getting the flu shot — even at this late date.

The difference between last flu season and this one is striking: Through Dec. 29, 272 cases had been reported in Nebraska, compared with 13 at the same point last year, said Dr. Joann Schaefer, Nebraska's chief medical officer. Iowa so far has reported hundreds of cases of seasonal influenza, compared with 27 last year.

Schaefer noted that 2011-12 was “an incredibly mild season. This year, we're having a very heavy season.”

The flu strain that's circulating is sending more people to the hospital than what was out there the past couple of years, said Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, medical director of the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Iowa reported 151 influenza-related hospitalizations through Dec. 29. That compares with none at the same point last year and 15 at that point in 2010.

“Right now, it looks like it may really be a bad year,” Quinlisk said.

Iowa's actual number of hospitalized people may be higher, she said, because the state tracks admissions only at 21 representative hospitals.

Nebraska didn't have on Friday the most current number of flu-related hospitalizations, but the state's totals had swelled from 109 to 324 from Dec. 1 to Dec. 22.

Flu cases also are up nationwide. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said most of the U.S. is seeing high numbers of influenza-like illness. The current levels are nearing what have been peaks during moderately severe seasons in the past, the CDC said.

Both Schaefer and Quinlisk expect flu numbers to rise as kids have started returning to classes after their holiday breaks. School is “where they swap bugs,” Schaefer said.

Typically, she said, influenza numbers will peak toward the end of January or the beginning of February.

Even though the numbers are high, this year's flu isn't as severe as the outbreak of the H1N1 strain in the 2009-10 season. Nebraska had 536 confirmed cases of H1N1 that year and 15 deaths. Iowa had nearly 2,000 confirmed cases and 41 deaths.

Schaefer and Quinlisk said this year's flu vaccine targets the flu that's circulating now. “We're really hoping that the vaccine will work and keep the number of hospitalizations and serious illnesses down,” Quinlisk said.

The two encouraged parents to keep their children home from school if a child has a fever. Schaefer said adults who are sick should stay home from work to prevent spreading their illness to others.

“We're trying to help people understand it's not just about them,” she said. “It's about the community as a whole.”

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402-444-1109, bob.glissmann@owh.com

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