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Flu hospitalizations 2 times higher than last year

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MISSOULA, Mont. - The number of influenza hospitalizations in Montana is more than double what it was this time last year.

The latest influenza report from Montana's Department of Health and Human Services says 643 Montana residents have been hospitalized as of March 4, since the start of the flu season in October. At the end of flu season in April 2016 DPHHS reported 339 flu hospitalizations.

State health officials say the increase in in hospitalizations in 2017 reflects an increase of influenza cases at five Flathead County assisted-living facilities, among other factors.

"In a nursing home you're always going to have one or two people who have the flu," said Missoula City-County Health Department infectious disease specialist Pam Whitney. "Sometimes when you see an increase of cases in a nursing home it tends to spread." She says the key to containing the flu is controlling the spread.

DPHSS says the disease is most severely impacting those 65 and up. DPHHS reports 17 deaths in Montana since the start of the season, compared to 15 in 2016.

Whitney says the 2017 season is much more severe than the 2016 season. Whitney says the number of cases all has to do with the strain in circulation.

Whitney says H3N2 strain A is the common strain this year. She says strain A is typically more severe than strain B.

"Each year we never quite know (which strain will be in circulation). Each year in March is when the CDC and drug companies decide what is going into the vaccine," she said.

Whitney says both strain A and B of H3N2 are covered in this year's vaccine. She says the increase of cases in 2017 could be due to co-morbidities -- or other diseases that could impact the risk of contracting and ability to recover from influenza.

"It's kind of always a guess if (the vaccine) is going to be an exact math or not, and since the influenza strains change every year it's important to get the vaccine annually," Whitney said.

Though Whitney says there were more strain B influenza cases in 2016, she says they are starting to pick up now. She says when strain B cases increase it usually means the flu season is in decline.

Whitney says as long as health officials continue to see influenza cases they will keep recommending the vaccine.

The most recent DPHHS report released Friday indicates, despite the hospitalizations, influenza cases in nearly all Montana counties are in decline for the year.

The state's flu status changed from widespread (the highest level) to regional (the second to highest level).

Whitney says the flu is spread through droplet contact, like coughs, sneezes or if you touch sometime with flu residue.

Syptoms include fever, body aches and fatigue for numerous days.

Whitney says to take medicines like Tamiflu within 48 hours of onset symptoms.

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