Despite anxiety over H1N1 influenza, Montana’s flu season was mild to moderate, public-health officials said.
Even so, it was anything but normal.
“It was a very unusual flu season because of H1N1,” said Jim Murphy, chief of the state’s Communicable Disease Prevention Bureau.
The novel strain of influenza surfaced in Montana last May, and a smattering of people around the state got sick through the summer.
Cases surged in the fall and peaked in mid-October, some two to three months earlier than the seasonal flu usually peaks.
Meanwhile, seasonal influenza made almost no appearance.
Because H1N1 was a new strain of influenza, experts feared it would hit hard.
No one was immune because no one had been exposed to it before, although scientists speculated that people older than 65 had been exposed to a similar strain as young people.
But H1N1’s bark was bigger than its bite.
“It proved to be a fairly mild disease,” said John Felton, assistant health officer for Yellowstone County.
In most cases, symptoms were manageable, and fewer people died from complications of H1N1 influenza than do each year from seasonal flu.
In Montana, 18 deaths were linked to H1N1. It is not unusual for 50 to 100 Montanans to die a year from seasonal-flu complications, Murphy said.
Typically, flu kills the very old and the very young, but H1N1 was hardest on people in middle age.
Eleven of the 18 people who died were 45 to 64 years old. Three were 25 to 44, and one was younger than 25. Just three of the victims were 65 or older.
The virus was also hard on American Indians. Five of the 18 victims were American Indians, making the H1N1 death rate in that population almost twice as high as in the general population.
People with chronic illnesses were more likely to die from H1N1 complications than healthy people, and American Indians have high rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes or asthma.
An H1N1 vaccine did not become available until early October, and it was initially limited to people in high-risk populations.
“The vaccine came in such dribs and drabs,” Felton said. “We would find out Wednesday what we would have the next week. That uncertainty made the flu season seem worse than it was.”
People lined up hours before community vaccination clinics opened, and the first few clinics quickly ran out of vaccine.
By the time the vaccine supply became plentiful in early December, attention had shifted away from H1N1 influenza. Doses are still available around the state, and it is not too late to be vaccinated, Murphy said.
“This isn’t necessarily all over yet,” he said. “Last year we had cases at this time that continued into summer.”
It is especially important for children younger than 10 to receive a second dose of vaccine to achieve full protection.
Next fall’s seasonal influenza vaccine will include the H1N1 vaccine.