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ND flu cases down 96 percent

Southwestern District Health Unit registered nurse Lori Faulhaber demonstrates how to give a flu shot on Dickinson resident Kaden Lunstad on Wednesday at Southwestern District Health Unit.

It's been a relatively quiet season for influenza, officials said Wednesday. North Dakota has seen a total of 12 cases, well below the more than 300 reported at this time last year.

"The fact that we still only have had 12 cases, I don't know what that means. I don't know if the flu season will be pushed off into later in the spring. There is just not a lot of influenza out there," said Lindsey VanderBusch, the Division of Disease Control Influenza Surveillance coordinator at the North Dakota Department of Health, Bismarck.

Three flu cases have been reported in Stark County since Sept. 1, which is when the Department of Health begins its tracking. Bowman County reported one case. Three other counties -- Grand Forks, Cass and Richland -- also reported cases.

VanderBusch said North Dakota is not the only state with lower-than- average numbers. The country has reported relatively low numbers compared to other years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

VanderBusch said the flu season starts in September and lasts through May. She added there is a six- to eight-week stretch when most of the cases occur. This peak period usually occurs between February and April.

VanderBusch said the low numbers may be attributed to "one of the most beautiful winters" North Dakota has experienced.

"People are not confined to indoor spaces and kids are able to still get outside and play more," she said, adding that being indoors helps spread diseases faster.

VanderBusch and Sherry Adams, Dickinson Southwestern District Health Unit executive officer, looked to see if people are not going in to report signs of illness, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

"I have talked to the clinics and the hospital and they are just not seeing any flu cases," Adams said. "Could people just be getting sick with mild cases and not going into the clinics? That is possible."

Adams said she has seen more people getting flu vaccinations, especially since it is available at more locations. She added more people may be getting vaccinated because of an H1N1 pandemic in the 2009-10 flu season. Between 8,720 and 18,050 H1N1-related deaths occurred in the U.S. between April 2009 and March 13, 2010, the CDC reported.

Adams said the season hasn't started and she still expects numbers will increase, though the numbers could be lower than other years.

"Some flu years it is a little later," Adams said. "I think a few years ago it started in February, March. Sometimes you will have an early season. We have had flu as early as October."

Abbi Pierce, the Department of Health Immunization Surveillance coordinator, said flu shots are the most effective against the flu and are still available.

"We are hoping that if people haven't gotten vaccinated at this point, they are still going to go out and do it before we really get hit by those flu cases," Pierce said.

Adams said the SWDHU administrated more than 3,500 flu shots throughout its region, which includes Adams, Billings, Bowman, Dunn, Golden Valley, Hettinger, Slope and Stark counties.

People should stay at home if they are sick, Pierce said. They should also wash their hands frequently and cough into their elbow.

"If you go to work, you are going to expose other people and spread that flu," she said. "It's all about just really basic things -- taking care of yourself and then that hand hygiene."