09/01/09 — Officials: Stop H1N1 by washing your hands

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Officials: Stop H1N1 by washing your hands

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 1, 2009 1:46 PM

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Dr. Ashton Griffin, right, medical director of the Health Department, confers with Leah Grimmer, lab supervisor, this week.

Prevention is the key to making it through the swine flu season, the Wayne County Health Department's medical director says.

Dr. Ashton Griffin said while there is no reason to sound the alarm, this flu is different because it is "new" and affects a different segment of the population.

"A lot of people have not been exposed to it in the past, so there's not much community immunity," Griffin said. "However, there seems to be some type of cross-immunity, which makes it unusual. The young population is more susceptible.

"We're seeing really more problems with the younger patients than we do with ordinary flu, but happily the younger patients are healthier and they tend to tolerate it."

H1N1, formerly called "swine flu," differs from the typical strain, he said. Because health officials have no way of anticipating how bad it might get, they are preparing for a serious epidemic.

And yet, the most basic steps of prevention are still recommended.

"It's an airborne or fluid-borne infection, so it's best for people not to cough on each other," Griffin said. "The new thing is to cough into the elbow of your sleeve and not on your hand or in your handkerchief that you're going to carry around. It's better to carry it around in your shirt sleeve. Fewer people get into your shirt sleeve."

No matter what type of flu is going around, however, it seems to worsen during cold weather because people are in a contained area and cluster together. Likewise, with the return of children to school, there's always an increase in respiratory illnesses, the director said.

While it might appear that the flu season has extended beyond its typical length, Griffin projects there is just more awareness and not necessarily cause for concern.

"I'm guessing it's not really that different, but we're really watching this one because we're afraid of it," he said. "So we're paying more attention.

"Initially, we were doing actual identification of flu from patients who got it. Then we realized we couldn't do it as the numbers got larger and larger. It seems that it's going to be the predominant flu this year."

The concern has prompted a rush by vaccine manufacturers attempting to stay on top of the situation.

"We have got two different flu vaccines -- the ordinary flu vaccine that we would have used if this one hadn't come along and now we have got a second vaccine for H1N1," Griffin said. "It's a different strain, and it was not included in the flu vaccine that we prepared for this year, so they did a rush job. It's not going to be ready when we start seeing flu that's a result of seeing kids back in school."

At the recent Board of Health meeting, Health Director James Roosen said the Health Department is committed to providing seasonal flu vaccine to school-age children. But it will require some planning, as there is the possibility that the number of vaccines received will be cut.

"One good thing about the H1N1 vaccine is it's going to be distributed through private health providers," he told the board. "Private providers here in Wayne County are taking a lot of the burden off public health."

Roosen also fielded questions from the board about the possibility of school closures should the flu became a widespread concern.

"Not unless it's very unusual circumstances," he replied. "We probably need to identify children and teachers who are sick and could contaminate other people."

An active surveillance policy is already in place in Wayne County, with a request to notify the Health Department if absenteeism is out of the ordinary, Roosen said. Beyond that, it will be a local decision as to whether closing schools is warranted.

Griffin said even mentioning closing schools is a "worst case scenario" measure, "that we would have a very serious flu that might cause a major pandemic versus lots of deaths and these things."

Witnessing areas where schools were closed, Griffin called the reaction "overkill," an action that didn't make enough of a difference.

He and others in the health care profession around the state and country are "learning as we go along," he said.

Symptoms mirror that of a garden variety flu -- achy, fever, headache, cough, sneezing, possibly vomiting.

Likewise, the same preventive measures apply -- frequent handwashing, covering coughs or sneezes with the elbow, staying home when sick, not returning to work or school until the fever has subsided for a full 24 hours.

Vaccines at this point are not expected to be available until possibly October. Whether there will be a sufficient quantity to go around remains to be seen, Griffin said.

"That seems to change from week to week," he said. "I don't have the official word. I think it's an evolutionary process that's going on. We look at it, see what's going on and we re-evaluate. It's a very fluid thing."