N.D. sees only nine flu cases so far

Only nine lab-confirmed cases of influenza had been reported to North Dakota health authorities as of last week, a far cry from the more than 3,200 cases reported by this time last year during the H1N1 scare.

Only nine lab-confirmed cases of influenza had been reported to North Dakota health authorities as of last week, a far cry from the more than 3,200 cases reported by this time last year during the H1N1 scare.

But Terri Keehr, a Grand Forks Public Health nurse and member of the county's disease prevention team, said people "should not let their guard down" by failing to get a flu vaccination.

"It could start up at any time," Keehr said.

"With the holiday season here and families getting together, there's more potential for those viruses to be passed around. Anytime you have people sharing the same air space, there's a greater chance the flu will spread."

Also, the peak of flu season in this region "generally is not until January or even February," she said, unlike last season when numbers of cases peaked in the fall.


Vaccine supplies are good and vaccinations are available on a walk-in basis at the health department on third floor of the Grand Forks County Office Building. Most insurance will cover the cost, and the county has vaccine available at no charge to people without insurance, Keehr said.

State health authorities receive influenza testing data from 22 designated "sentinel laboratories" around the state. Last year, positive lab tests peaked (698, or nearly 30 percent of all tests) the week ending Oct. 17, 2009.

No GF cases yet

As of last week, Grand Forks County had reported no lab-confirmed cases of the flu this season. The nine confirmed state cases were in Rolette, Ward, Stark and Cass counties.

None of the cases required hospitalization, according to the state health department's website, and there have been no deaths.

All nine cases involved Type A influenza, which along with Type B and H1N1 is included in this year's flu vaccine.

Of the 3,259 influenza cases reported in the 2009-2010 season, 543 were H1N1, which was commonly called "swine flu" and caused widespread concern as it spread to pandemic proportions and seemed especially to target young people.

But of the 401 influenza-related deaths in North Dakota last flu season -- about on par with the 10-year average -- 360 were people aged 65 or older.


"We used to think older people were most vulnerable," Keehr said. "But the majority of cases this year (five of nine) were in children under 10."

Concern for Minnesota elderly

Minnesota officials also report that influenza activity remains "slow" in that state.

In the week ending Nov. 27, two schools reported influenza outbreaks. The state recorded two hospitalizations that week but no deaths, and just 3.6 percent of rapid influenza tests reported to the state were positive.

But Minnesota officials say they are bracing for what could be a difficult year for the elderly.

In early October, two women in their 80s died from complications because of influenza. The state Department of Health's Public Health Laboratory confirmed that both had the A/H3 strain of influenza virus, which has caused sporadic outbreaks in long-term care facilities over the summer and early fall.

Both women who died had been residents of long-term care facilities.

"This may be a difficult year in terms of severe influenza infections in the elderly," said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist. "In years when there has been primarily (this strain of virus) circulating, we've seen higher rates of serious illness, particularly in the elderly."


Lynfield urged people who care for, live with or frequently visit the elderly to be vaccinated.

More information on Minnesota's 2010 flu season may be found at this link.

Wash your hands, cover your cough

Grand Forks County reported 161 lab-confirmed cases of influenza last season, well below Burleigh (618 cases) and Cass (305).

"It's hard to say why we've seen so few cases" this season, Keehr said. "But we do have cycles, when the flu season is worse at some times rather than others.

"There probably are a lot more cases out there, but they've either not been lab-confirmed, where the doctor doesn't take a swab and send it in, or people who are sick don't come in" to see a physician.

Keehr said the low numbers so far this season may also signal positive changes in behavior because of the drumbeat attention paid to H1N1 last year.

"We've done so much education about the importance of hand-washing and covering your cough," she said. "Children are learning that in school, and it's important that they do. They are little petri dishes, very efficient at passing germs along."


A new vaccination effort this year, funded by the state, allowed local health workers to offer free vaccinations to k-12 students in every school in the county.

Participation was lower than health officials had hoped for, as only 20 percent to 40 percent of students received the vaccine in school. But many others probably received vaccinations from their primary physicians, Keehr said.

"I'd love to see it at 90 percent," she said. "It's free, and it's convenient. And the more children we're protecting, the less potential there is for that disease to be passed on."

There has been "a steady flow" of people coming in to the county office for flu shots, she said, "and you can be in and out in 15 minutes. There are no lines of people waiting like last year. We're not seeing any panic at all this year."

Another lesson from last year's H1N1 scare: "We learned we can vaccinate a very large number of people efficiently and safely," Keehr said, referring to mass clinics arranged at the Alerus and other locations. "So if, God forbid, we had any kind of natural or manmade disaster that required mass vaccinations, we know we could deal with that. We have a plan in place, that plan was tested with H1N1 last year, and it worked."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to .

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