Mitigating the impact of pandemic flu
Flu season has arrived and upwards of 30 percent of the population could become ill within the next 60 days without a combined effort of individuals, government agencies, and the business community to prevent and contain the spread of the pandemic H1N1 strain.
“We need to take (flu prevention) as seriously as we do fire prevention,” said State Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, R-75th District, a panelist on the public forum “Pandemic Flu: Know the Enemy,” hosted Oct. 1 by the Burnham Institute for Medical Research.
Flu pandemics have occurred throughout history; three times in the 20th century alone (1918, 1957 and 1968). Media coverage last spring of the first reported cases of pandemic H1N1 flu led many to believe the strain is deadlier than seasonal flu.
This may not prove to be the case, but what is certain is that pandemic H1N1 is highly contagious.
“Since July, there have been 1,299 confirmed cases of flu illness in San Diego County, 99 percent of which have been pandemic H1N1,” said Patricia Skoglund, R.N., administrative director of Disaster Preparedness for Scripps Health.
A troubling aspect of pandemic H1N1 is the high infection rate of among the young.
“We are seeing perfectly healthy young adults develop fatal results,” said Stephen Waterman, M.D., M.P.H., senior medical epidemiologist and associate director of the U.S./Mexico unit of the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in San Diego.
For individuals, being prepared for flu season means being proactive through vaccination and taking steps (such as frequent hand washing) to avoid exposure. Seasonal flu vaccine is available now and initial delivery to California of pandemic H1N1 vaccines begins the first week of October with additional allocations continuing to arrive through January. “There will be enough to vaccinate the population,” Skoglund said.
“I’d also like to put in a plug for the pneumonia vaccine as well,” said Robert Liddington, Ph.D., director of Burnham’s Infectious Disease program. Deaths from pandemic H1N1 are coming primarily from secondary infections, and this is often pneumonia.
Government agencies play an important role in monitoring infection rates, coordinating vaccination programs and informing the public.
San Diego County has had in place for years a program that monitors respiratory infections as reported by schools, hospitals, ambulance services and other health care providers.
“We can see spikes and trends on a weekly basis,” Skoglund said.
County health officials, the California Department of Public Health and the CDC share information in weekly phone calls. And the public will be kept informed through better coordination of communication efforts; the result of measures put in place following the lessons learned from San Diego County’s catastrophic fire storms.
The business community needs to anticipate and plan for the economic impact of large numbers of people out of work due to illness for three, five, or seven days at a stretch. Employee absenteeism could also affect the ability of utilities and public safety agencies to deliver services.
“But, it’s a false economy to keep sick employees at work,” Liddington cautioned.
‘Pandemic Flu: Know the Enemy’ was taped by UCSD-TV and will air at 9 p.m. Oct. 22.
Vaccination clinic locations and other information on the prevention and spread of pandemic H1N1 can be found at sdiz.org.
Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.