Communities prepare for flu

Published 9:18 am Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Niles Daily Star

Scientists across the country are in a race against time for a vaccine to the H1N1 virus, formerly known as “Swine Flu,” which sent the United States, neighboring Mexico and several other countries alike into states of panic this past spring when the virus appeared suddenly, spreading fast and furious.

Now, researchers and doctors are making sure they’re prepared for any possibility of the virus’ return.

“They’re in the first stages of a clinical trial now that started last week and it will probably continue for several weeks,” said Dr. Rick Johansen, of the Berrien, Cass and Van Buren county health departments.

The hope, he said, “is that (by) the beginning of October, some vaccine will be available.”
That anticipated vaccine would be available in the amount of an estimated 20 million doses, Johansen added, “with more to follow.”

As the Center for Disease Control (CDC) continues to report progress on the development of a vaccine, health officials across the country wait for confirmation that state health departments will be prepared in the event of another outbreak.

“There are two big unknown factors here,” Johansen said. “Number one, is how will H1N1 show up this year?”

The virus seemed to originate in the heart of Mexico City, causing several fatalities back in the spring. The location, coupled with the virus spreading with relative ease and the location – in a country where many United States citizens spent time vacationing and college students were spending their spring breaks allowed for the cases to being sprouting up across the nation including in Michigan.

The sickness, which was described by Johansen as turning out to be not much more severe than the standard flu, hit close to home when an Oak Manor student was reported to have come down with the virus.

Johansen said it’s not known if H1N1 will wake with the season (the flu often being seen in the December to March months) or if it will be seen earlier, hitting with the roar of a lion or significantly quieter.

“It appears that it’s not more severe than the regular flu,” he said, but the H1N1 virus does seem to have a higher attack rate on children ages six months to 24 months, which Johansen describes as a “high priority target,” as well as in pregnant women or people with existing health issues.

The second unknown factor, “will a vaccine be effective?” Johansen said. “Odds are right now, it should be. Testing is going well.”

Health officials area also “preparing for the worst” with plans for “high volume clinics” making it possible to aid more people at one time. “We’ve done that before,” he said.

Though a need for a vaccine is obvious, Johansen said people shouldn’t mistake preparedness with panic.

The idea seems to be the old, “better safe than sorry” mindset. Another concern revolves around the new school year.

Johansen said meetings will be held with area school officials to go over CDC materials and information in an effort to “have as little disruption as possible.”

Asked just what “the worst” would be, Johansen described, “if the flu came in with a high attack rate and a high fatality rate.” The odds of that happening are low he said, reiterating that people shouldn’t panic.

The latest figures through the CDC, as of Aug. 7, show that a total of 6,506 hospitalized cases of the virus have been reported and a total of 436 deaths among 50 states and territories, including Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the District of Columbia.  Johansen estimated 13 total cases were in Berrien County and 23 in Van Buren County.

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