Flu cases in Montana counties, reported as of Jan. 20, 2018. (Courtesy: Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services)

HELENA – Health leaders say the flu season in Montana has been similar in severity to last year.

As of January 20, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services reported 2,530 cases of flu so far. More than 350 people in the state have been hospitalized, and 20 have died. 18 of the deaths were among people 65 and older. Montana has not yet seen any child flu deaths this season.

“When you compare where we are right now to this time last season, our numbers are pretty much the same as they were last year,” said Stacey Anderson, an epidemiologist with DPHHS.

Most of Montana’s flu cases, both this year and last year, have been from the H3 subtype. Anderson said, in years where that type predominates, the state usually sees more severe illness, more hospitalizations and more deaths.

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There has been additional national attention on the flu this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that 37 children nationwide have died from the disease.

Anderson said DPHHS is handling the flu in the same way they have in other seasons. They’re still recommending people get flu shots, even though they are not as effective on this year’s strains, because they can reduce the risk of serious complications or death.

The agency also recommends washing your hands regularly, covering your mouth when you cough, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and staying home when you are sick.

“You always want to be paying attention during flu season,” said Anderson. “For the most part, most people recover just fine from it, but we’re always paying close attention, seeing how things change during the season and making sure that we’re communicating any changes to the people.”

Anderson also emphasized that many illnesses that people assume are the seasonal flu may actually be something else. For example, parainfluenza can cause similar symptoms, but will not respond to flu treatments.

You can find DPHHS’s latest updates on the flu season here.