The flu is here ahead of schedule, and it’s not messing around.
At least 16 Montanans already have been hospitalized for the flu since September, and almost 40 cases confirmed across the state, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Public health officials are urging people to get vaccinated as soon as possible to help keep the virus from spreading. All of the hospitalized patients have been older than 60 and unvaccinated. The vaccine can take two weeks to be effective, so the sooner the better.
The flu usually doesn’t pick up until November, DPHHS epidemiologist Stacy Anderson said, but the state has seen an uptick since September. Anderson said the season can vary year to year, but is usually expected between October and June.
Influenza is a broad term encompassing many different strains of the virus, with different ones affecting the population each year. Scientists try to predict which strain will be most active in North America so that vaccines can be made effectively.
Scientists and doctors look to the southern hemisphere, places like Australia, for insight into how the flu could play out in North America and Europe. Australia’s flu season is the opposite of North America’s, so it can offer clues to the specific strain prevalent in the coming season.
Australia reported a bad flu season, which doesn’t bode well for the United States, Missoula County infectious disease specialist Pam Whitney said.
The H3N2 strain, which is reported to be a particularly severe variation, was widespread in Australia, and is the same strain popping up in the state.
The vaccine widely available this year contains four different strains, including the H3N2 variety expected to be most prevalent. Whitney said people shouldn’t be worried about getting sick from the vaccine itself, as the strains are not alive, but rather created in a lab. The nasal spray vaccine in previous years did contain a live, but weakened, version of the virus she said.
The nasal spray was found to be less effective than the injectable vaccine, Whitney said, so it will not be offered this year. A fear of needles might keep some people from getting vaccinated, but the injectable vaccine is expected to be highly effective, as it contains the strain popping up so far in the state.
Flu shot clinics are opening around town at major employers and health fairs, and walk-in vaccine appointments also are available at the county health department, Costco and most pharmacies in the area. The county health department accepts all insurances, and for those without insurance, there is an income-based sliding fee scale.
Whitney recommended people wash their hands, keep their surroundings clean and stay home if they do get sick.
“There’s really no reason for anyone to not get the vaccine,” Whitney said.