As December 2017 came to an end and January 2018 began, health officials at the state and federal level began to observe a sharp increase in influenza activity.

In fact, the most recent information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has indicated the entire country is at an elevated risk when it comes to influenza. The majority of regions in the U.S. are reporting widespread activity, and Minnesota is no exception.

According to Karen Martin, an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), the number of cases has risen dramatically in recent weeks.

“We have had more than 1,000 already this season, and more than 300 of them have come in the past week,” she said.

Typically, influenza is at its peak during the January and February timeframe, said Martin, adding, however, the season usually runs from December through March. The peak of influenza can happen at any time during that window.

“Last season the peak came later in February,” said Martin.

The major strain of influenza that is being seen in hospitals and nursing homes this season is A(H3), said Martin. 

Martin added it can be a more serious strain in terms of the number of people who are impacted and the length of their illness. She said in a mild season there may be in the area of 1,000 people who are diagnosed with influenza, while during a more serious season that number can jump to more than 4,000. Martin added when higher numbers happen it is typically a strain like A(H3) that is found.

It is the most vulnerable, including those who have other conditions and the elderly, who are impacted at the greatest level with a strain like this. Martin did not speculate why it is that peaks hit at different times, although she did agree it seems in many years the number of influenza cases does increase after the holiday season. That is a time when more people are together in closer spaces creating an atmosphere where influenza can be much more easily spread person to person.

When conditions are dry influenza has a tendency to spread more effectively as well, said Martin. She explained that when someone sneezes the influenza particles are carried by the moisture, but ultimately that moisture also limits how far it spreads. When it is dry, the moisture evaporates more quickly and allows for influenza germs, which are much lighter, to then spread farther.

Influenza is widespread in Minnesota, said Martin, adding there is no particular region in the state at this time that is seeing a significant number of cases compared to other areas.

Yes, Martin added, there is still a chance for people to get the influenza vaccine. There is still plenty of time left for people to get vaccinated, she said, adding even when the peak of the season comes to an end there is still a chance someone could get influenza, and that probability increases for those who have not gotten the vaccine.

Nicole Huseby, Redwood Area Hospital infection prevention coordinator, offered some information regarding influenza and the importance of being vaccinated, staying home when one is sick and taking precautions, such as washing one’s hands and covering a cough, to help prevent further spread of influenza.

According to Huseby, influenza is a respiratory infection that causes fever, cough, sore throat, extreme exhaustion and body aches.

Influenza, added Huseby, can be very serious and often keeps people from doing their normal activities. It can lead to more serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections and hospitalization. It can be a devastating, deadly illness, especially to the very young, the very old and those who have underlying health conditions.

One can’t get influenza from the vaccine, Huseby added.

It takes about two weeks to build up immunity after the influenza vaccine has been administered.

Everyone who is six months old and older is urged to get the influenza vaccine.

To prevent influenza, Huseby also recommends:

• Avoiding others who are sick.

• Covering one’s nose and mouth when they cough with a tissue, or coughing and sneezing into one’s sleeve.

• Washing one’s hands often with soap and water or an alcohol based, waterless hand sanitizer.

• Cleaning commonly touched surfaces, such as door knobs, refrigerator handles, phones and water faucets.

• Not sharing cups and straws.

To learn more about influenza, this year’s strain or other prevention measures, visit the MDH web site online at www.health.state.mn.us.

– Photo courtesy of the Internet public domain