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Published December 27, 2012, 11:30 PM

Flu season starts early in region

FARGO – Flu season is hitting the region early this year, with 380 reported cases in North Dakota already and nearly 300 hospitalized in Minnesota from the virus so far.

By: Ryan Johnson, INFORUM

FARGO – Flu season is hitting the region early this year, with 380 reported cases in North Dakota already and nearly 300 hospitalized in Minnesota from the virus so far.

Health Officer John Baird with Fargo Cass Public Health said it’s typical for cases to start showing up in late December. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked high rates of the illness in southern and eastern states, and he said all signs point to a busy flu season in our region as well.

During the past two years, North Dakota saw its number of newly reported flu cases peak by February or March, and Minnesota dealt with widespread flu around the same time.

But Kris Ehresmann, director for infectious disease at the Minnesota Department of Health, said this season is shaping up to be more normal – or even worse than usual – compared to the past five years, which had relatively “lackluster” flu seasons.

“It’s important for people to keep in mind that the last seasons were very mild,” she said. “Right now, what we’re experiencing looks like a normal season, and it may seem worse to people based on the last couple of years.”

Ehresmann said officials will know for sure over the coming weeks if this winter could pack a more severe than normal flu season.

She said there already are unusual trends this year, including the state’s first lab-confirmed case of influenza in October. The first confirmed report usually pops up in late November, she said, and typically takes about eight to 10 weeks longer to become prevalent.

During the week of Dec. 16-22, 123 people were hospitalized in Minnesota with confirmed flu cases, and a woman in her 90s died from the virus. So far, a total of 297 people have been hospitalized and two have died in the state, while 13 long-term care facilities such as nursing homes and 133 schools reported outbreaks.

Influenza is also active in North Dakota, with 35 cases reported in Cass County alone. Burleigh County had the state’s most cases, with 56 reported ill from the flu. Ward County reported 44 cases, and Grand Forks County tallied another 29. The flu contributed to one death in the state so far.

Baird said the reported cases are really a “tip of the iceberg” indication of what’s going on here because many who are struck by the illness don’t go to a doctor or aren’t tested for the virus.

A total of 1,487 influenza cases were reported in North Dakota during the last flu season, about 500 fewer than 2010-2011.

But Baird said there are some steps people should take that could help them stay healthy this winter, especially considering the peak flu season stretches into March or even later.

Flu shots are still widely available at local public health offices and medical providers, he said, and the vaccine can be given to anyone over the age of 6 months.

“Now that the holiday rush is over and kids are still out of school, it’s really a great time to get a flu shot if they haven’t gotten one yet before they go back to school and everyone gets together again,” he said.

Ehresmann said it only takes a week to 10 days for the vaccine to become fully effective, providing the best defense against some of the most common strains of flu.

“It’s never too late to get a flu shot,” she said. “Now that we’re seeing so much influenza activity, there’s no reason to wait.”

Baird said many people who exhibit the classic flu symptoms – upper respiratory problems, coughing, congestion, fever and body aches – can get by with staying home, getting plenty of sleep and staying hydrated.

But when the virus strikes young children, the elderly, anyone with underlying medical conditions or someone who isn’t getting better after a few days, they should contact their health care provider, he said.

Ehresmann said the other tips to stay healthy are “like what your mother told you,” but are still important – frequently wash hands, eat well and get enough rest. People with the flu should stay home, cover their mouths when coughing and contact a doctor if they have any concerns or think they could benefit from antiviral medications that may shorten the duration of illness.

“If people would do those kinds of things, that would make a huge difference in controlling the spread of influenza,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587