JAMESTOWN -- A sudden spike in influenza cases is indicating an early start to the flu season, according to experts at the North Dakota Department of Health.

There were 101 flu cases reported statewide for the last week of October, compared to just three cases for the same week in 2017, according to the Department of Health. The reported cases since August are at 223, compared to 35 cases at the same time in 2017.

The Department of Health reports there were 160,293 doses of 2017-18 influenza vaccine administered statewide so far this season.

“People need to get vaccinated ASAP, especially with the holidays coming up,” said Jill Baber, a respiratory and syndromic surveillance epidemiologist with the Division of Disease Control. “Definitely make sure to practice good hand hygiene and stay home when you are sick, and keep your kids home when they are sick so as not to spread illness to others.”

Benson County and Ramsey County account for 100 cases alone, and northeast counties have more cases in general, she said. Cass County has the third highest flu report with 14 cases.

“But I am seeing flu sporadically everywhere, so we might start to see increases in other places soon,” Baber said.

Stutsman County reported one flu case and is among 25 counties reporting one to 10 cases, she said. The flu reports are of laboratory-confirmed positive cases of people who were tested in a health care setting and does not include cases diagnosed without a lab test or of people who did not seek medical attention, she said.

Statewide there were two people hospitalized with flu last week and nine overall this season, according to the Department of Health. So far this season, there has been one flu-related death and 89 deaths due to pneumonia.

In addition, thus far this season, there have been 161 cases of the type A, unspecified strain, followed by 30 cases of type A, 2009 H1N1; 28 cases of type B, unspecified; and 3 cases of type A, H3N2.

The 2009 H1N1 is appearing in North Dakota and nationwide, Baber said. The strain disproportionately affects young people, and there usually are a fewer elderly cases of this strain, she said.

Vaccine effectiveness is usually better for the type A 2009 H1N1 strain than the type A H3N2, she said. Flu seasons with more type A 2009 H1N1 tend to be more mild than those where type A H3N2 is the predominant strain, she said.

The last flu season with a predominant 2009 A H1N1 strain was 2015-16, which was an extremely mild season with fewer than 2,000 cases, she said.

“The (2018-19) flu vaccine provides protection for the 2009 A H1N1 strain, and has every year since the strain started circulating during the pandemic,” Baber said. “The old H1N1 that circulated before the pandemic has not circulated since the 2009 A H1N1 replaced it as the seasonal H1N1.”

A flu vaccine takes about two weeks to provide protection, so getting vaccinated as soon as possible is important because the number of cases increase week-to-week, said Robin Iszler, the unit administrator at Central Valley Health in Jamestown. This year’s quadrivalent vaccine does include the four strains mentioned, she said.

“Vaccinations are the best protection, along with washing hands,” Iszler said. “There is no shortage of vaccine as far as we know.”

The peak weeks of the flu season tend to start in January or later, she said. It is a little unusual to see the sharp increases that can indicate the start of peak activity in early November, she said.

“It can be because people are mobile and travel over the holidays,” Iszler said.

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