August 18, 2009

State braces for severe flu season

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: New York Teacher

The H1N1 influenza virus, originally dubbed the "swine flu," has not taken a summer vacation.

As of Aug. 1, the New York State Department of Health reports 2,253 lab-confirmed cases of novel H1N1 influenza, said to represent "only a fraction of the likely number of cases." Nine deaths have been associated with the illness.

The federal Centers for Disease Control said in its latest update that the new H1N1 virus is "continuing to cause illness, hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. during the normally flu-free summer months."

CDC is reporting concern that the new H1N1 flu virus "could result in a particularly severe flu season this year."

Gov. David Paterson has declared the novel H1N1 influenza virus a threat to public health, allowing increased local health department expenditures for health emergency measures.

State Health Commissioner Richard Daines met with health commissioners and health directors from every county to discuss the planning and response efforts for the disease, including a vaccination campaign and forum. The last such "Commissioner's Calls" were in 2006 for pandemic influenza, and 2001 for bioterrorism and disaster planning.

Schools are expected to be affected again this fall as the flu continues to strike, and people who live, work or study in close proximity are more likely to spread the disease. Last spring, numerous schools throughout the state were closed as the contagious illness spread.

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"We need to be especially vigilant about identifying the symptoms and then acting appropriately to avoid the spread of the H1N1 virus," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, whose office oversees health care issues for the statewide union.

Donahue noted that the union's Web site, www.nysut.org, is carrying timely updates and information on the flu virus.

CDC hopes that people will get vaccinated against seasonal influenza as soon as vaccines become available locally. Vaccines are expected to be available this fall.

H1N1 Flu Information

Health care and emergency medical services personnel are encouraged to get vaccinated because infections among health care workers have been reported and this can be a potential source of infection for vulnerable patients.

"Also, increased absenteeism in this population could reduce health care system capacity," the CDC reports.

"There is some possibility that initially, the vaccine will be available in limited quantities," the CDC states. If so, priority will be given to the most vulnerable populations. The H1N1 vaccine does not take the place of the seasonal flu vaccine.

Anne Goldman, chair of NYSUT's Health Care Professionals Council and special nursing representative to the United Federation of Teachers, said "It would behoove us to get guiding principles on how to respond" if the flu starts contaminating school children again.

Questions that should be addressed include how long schools should be closed and proper cleaning criteria for schools that have been affected.

When New York City schools were affected in the spring by flu-ridden students, she said the mayor's office met with UFT officials to determine a course of action.

Cough etiquette and hand hygiene are essential to control the spread of illness, she said.

CDC strongly recommends a person with the flu stay home a full 24 hours after their fever has gone.

"Longer exclusion for up to seven days should be strongly considered in settings that have significant numbers of vulnerable individuals," the state health department said.

Symptoms include fever and either cough or sore throat. In addition, illness may be accompanied by other symptoms including headache, fatigue, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, diarrhea and vomiting.

People at high risk for influenza complications include:

  • Children younger than 5 years old
  • Pregnant women
  • People with lung conditions, heart conditions (except hypertension), chronic kidney and liver disease, blood disorders, neurological disorders, metabolic disorders or immunosuppression.
  • Children and adolescents (younger than 19) who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy
  • Persons 65 years of age or older
  • Nursing home residents;
  • All people from 6 months through 24 years of age
  • Children from 6 months through 18 years of age.
  • Persons 25-64 who have health conditions associated with higher risk of medical complications from influenza.