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Health department confirms over 300 cases of influenza in North Dakota

BISMARCK – The flu is sweeping across North Dakota, with several community outbreaks reported in recent weeks and more than 300 influenza cases confirmed so far with lab tests, the state Department of Health said Tuesday.

This is the third consecutive season that flu activity has begun earlier than usual, said Jill Baber, the department’s flu surveillance coordinator. The number of cases usually starts to climb between January and March, but the department had already confirmed 332 cases as of Dec. 13, she said.

“Two weeks ago, it really picked up in the eastern half of the state, but now I think it’s definitely statewide,” she said.

Dr. Susan Betting, a family medicine doctor, said the Sanford North Clinic in Bismarck is seeing an influx of flu patients, and every age group is affected.

“In our clinic alone we’ve seen hundreds,” she said.

Influenza A H3N2, the circulating flu strain that’s causing the majority of cases nationwide, has changed slightly, or “drifted,” from the strain used to make the vaccine, Baber said. No cases of the drifted strain have been identified in North Dakota, but it’s likely present in the state, she said.

The health department is still advising people to get the vaccine, because it can be effective against other flu strains and may provide some protection against the drifted strain.

“It isn’t worthless. It’s just we’re going to have a bigger (flu) season because it’s not going to work as well,” Baber said.

Coughing, fever, body aches, runny nose and sore throat are the main symptoms being observed, usually associated with a fever of 101 degrees or higher, Betting said.

“Usually it’s an abrupt onset. It comes on pretty quickly, and it’ll last five to seven days,” she said.

For anti-flu medication such as Tamiflu to be effective, it has to be given within the first 48 hours of symptoms appearing, so it’s important to seek treatment right away, Betting said. Most people don’t need to see a doctor, as the body’s immune system will overcome the virus in time, but the very old and very young and those with underlying health conditions such as asthma should seek treatment, she said.

Complications from the flu and pneumonia contribute to the deaths of more than 400 North Dakotans annually, most over the age of 64, but no flu-related deaths have been reported yet, Baber said. A large number of cases also occur in children under 10, often requiring hospitalization.

In addition to getting a flu shot, the health department urges people to wash their hands frequently with soap and water, cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when sneezing or coughing and stay home from work, school or recreational activities when ill.

Sanford Medical Center in Bismarck put visitor restrictions in place Tuesday to protect babies in its neonatal intensive care unit from getting influenza. Provided they have no symptoms of illness, only parents and grandparents of a NICU baby are allowed to visit, a news release stated.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.