Two Flathead County residents have died from the flu, marking the state’s first influenza-related deaths this season, the Flathead City-County Health Department reported Wednesday.
Both deceased residents were over the age of 65.
Last year, the flu claimed the lives of 56 Montanans, including seven who lived in Flathead County.
Flathead’s public health officer Hillary Hanson said her office was surprised to see fatalities at this point in the season, given that influenza rates have just begun to pick up. The county saw 15 cases last week, up from six since the start of the season.
“Each year is a little bit different so we don’t always know what we’re going to see and when we’re going to see it,” Hanson said. “It’s hard to tell this early in the season what our flu season is really going to look like.”
Influenza is a highly contagious virus that is spread by airborne droplets and contact with infected persons or contaminated surfaces. Symptoms include fever, chills, congestion, runny nose and fatigue. The virus usually clears up within the span of days to a couple weeks and can be partially prevented with an annual influenza vaccination.
The health department said the flu vaccine is the best way to prevent the illness, and noted that it can take up to two weeks after receiving the shot for antibodies to develop and the vaccine to be effective. Vaccination is recommended for at-risk populations including people over the age of 65, children younger than 5 years old, people with chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease, along with pregnant women.
People may also reduce their risk of contracting or spreading the flu by covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands frequently and staying home when ill.
“It’s really hard when the flu season hits around the holidays because we have a tendency to want to spend time with families,” Hanson said, “and we really encourage people to think through if they’re feeling ill at all, who they’re going to be seeing …. and be cautious around those who may be particularly vulnerable to illnesses.”
Health experts are concerned about the effectiveness of this year’s vaccine, based on reports out of Australia, which uses a vaccine with the same composition of that used in the U.S. Australia has seen record-numbers of influenza outbreaks and above average hospitalizations and deaths this winter.
The New England Journal of Medicine found that the H3N2 strain of the virus was most prevalent in the southern hemisphere and preliminary estimates of the vaccine’s effectiveness against that strain were only 10 percent. When vaccines are well-matched to circulating strains, estimates of effectiveness range between 40 and 60 percent, according to the Journal.
The U.S. may also be in for a severe season, as the H3N2 strain has been a dominating presence in early reports. During the last week of November, the vast majority — 80 percent — of lab-confirmed influenza tests in the U.S. were H3N2 viruses, according to the Center for Disease Control. Nationwide since Oct. 1, 566 have been hospitalized for influenza and 148 million doses of the flu vaccine have been distributed.