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Local and state public health officials are seeing a significant increase in the number of confirmed influenza cases being reported across the state.

As of Dec. 12, almost every county and tribal health department has reported cases to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

This signals an early start to influenza season for Montana, with 38 reported hospitalizations so far. A similar pattern is being seen across the country with several states reporting outbreaks and an increase in hospitalizations. 

Early data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest the 2014-15 season could be severe and public health officials are reminding everyone to take steps to protect themselves and others.

The best protection against influenza continues to be vaccination. Depending on the vaccine an individual receives, protection against three or four strains of influenza is included. Although there is concern this year that one strain being seen is not a perfect match with the vaccine, public health officials remind everyone that more than one strain is circulating and even a less than perfect match still offers some degree of protection. Vaccination protects against severe illness and hospitalization.

“Vaccination still provides the best protection against influenza,” said DPHHS Director Richard Opper. “It may prevent you from becoming ill or reduce the severity of illness, preventing hospitalizations and deaths. There is plenty of vaccine available and you can protect yourself, particularly important as we gather for the holidays.”

DPHHS recommends that everyone age 6 months or older get vaccinated. Starting this year, the CDC recommends use of the nasal spray vaccine for healthy children ages 2 to 8.

However, if the nasal spray vaccine is not immediately available and the flu shot is, children 2 to 8 should get the flu shot. Children younger than 6 months cannot get a flu vaccination, which is why their families are strongly urged to get vaccinated to protect the most vulnerable population.

While everyone older than 6 months should be vaccinated, many people are at elevated risk and are encouraged to get vaccinated immediately.

People at high risk for serious influenza complications include people with underlying chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease or neurological conditions; pregnant women; those younger than age 5 or older than 65; or anyone with a weakened immune system.

People who are at high risk for influenza complications should see a health care professional promptly if they get flu symptoms, even if they have been vaccinated this season. They may benefit from antiviral medications.

Other recommendations that are being stressed include staying home when you are sick, covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and washing your hands often. Not only will these simple activities prevent influenza, they will protect you and others from a variety of other illnesses.

For more information regarding vaccination and the impact of influenza, visit dphhs.mt.gov.

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