Health officials seek prevention in fighting flu

Monday, October 12, 2009

Businesses received practical tips on how to avoid the flu during a workshop hosted by the Barry County health agencies at the Monett Chamber of Commerce office. Robert Niezgoda, regional epidemiology specialist with the Taney County Health Department, focused on the H1N1 "swine flu" challenge.

Contrary to public fears, Niezgoda said, the H1N1 virus is not significantly different from any other flu virus. It is not more deadly and can be largely prevented by basic healthcare strategies.

H1N1 cannot be "caught" from airborne contact, Niezgoda said. Rather, the virus lands on surfaces and is spread by people touching those surfaces, then rubbing the virus into their eyes or noses. Handwashing and cleaning surfaces of common touch are the main defenses.

The virus can remain alive for three to five days. A person coming into contact with the virus is assumed to be contagious from one day prior to illness to at least 24 hours after the fever is gone. Niezgoda warned that taking fever reducing medicine can appear to take away the fever but does not reduce the potential to spread the H1N1 virus in its regular timeframe. Children especially should not go back to school too soon.

"January to March we typically see a spike in flu cases," Niezgoda said. "There is usually little during the summer. With H1N1, we've seen cases all through the summer."

In a normal flu season, 5 to 20 percent of the public will get sick. Because H1N1 appears more active, to is expected that 30 to 50 percent of the public could become ill. The 30,000 deaths typically caused by flu in the United States in a year's time could increase to 70,000, Niezgoda said.

Taking the vaccine for H1N1 is strongly recommended. Kathleen King, administrator for the Barry County Health Department, said the department initially is only getting 200 doses of the nose mist for healthcare workers. When a larger supply arrives, clinics will be held targeting school children in particular. More staff will be hired to run the regular flu shot clinics and evening sessions.

Unlike normal flu outbreaks, H1N1 is not targeting senior citizens. Niezgoda said there appears to be no increase in the number of seniors getting sick from the H1N1 virus. Pregnant women and those from six months to age 24 are the main target group for vaccination.

"Everybody needs to decide if you have these symptoms (the fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, chills, fatigue that go with flu)," said David Compton, emergency management director for Barry County. "If you have them, stay home. That's not a bad policy to have all year."

A higher percentage of those getting H1N1, up to a quarter, Niezgoda said, will also have vomiting and diarrhea. Not a great deal of effort is going to be made to determine if a person has H1N1 or some other flu, he said.

The vaccine, Niezgoda stressed, is tailored for the H1N1 virus, has been tested and is safe. The vaccine is on the market faster than the usual six months needed to prepare a treatment because work started earlier and production was diverted from other vaccines, which are usually being made at the same time.

Businesses were urged to use common sense strategies to avoid problems, like everyone at the office getting sick at once. Tips for what to do are available from the health department or the Monett Chamber of Commerce. The internet site was recommended as an especially good source of information.

"We started planning for the pandemic three or four years ago," Compton said. "We dusted off what we had done and had to adjust to some CDC [Centers for Disease Control] decisions. From the first outbreak, it's gone well from the planning we had done. Cox and St. John's and many more have been a big help in this process."

"Fortunately this virus has taken off slowly, like the regular flu," Niezgoda said. "Right now we're looking OK. If it changes, we'll change our strategy."

Last Thursday's workshop was hosted by the Barry County Health Department and the Barry County Office of Emergency Management.

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