Austin community members briefed on H1N1

Published 6:54 am Friday, August 28, 2009

Austin businesses and organizations learned Thursday about what they can do and expect if the novel H1N1 flu pandemic comes.

Mower County Community Health officials invited the public for a Tabletop Exercise at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center to inform them about what H1N1 — formerly known as swine flu — is, and about its status.

“There’s going to be a wave that goes in our community, and then there could be another one,” predicted Dr. Michael Toth, Urgent Care medical director at Austin Medical Center.

Email newsletter signup

Toth said there have been no documented cases of H1N1 in Mower County to date. However, that does not mean there have not been any, he said. A person could have H1N1 and not know the difference between it and seasonal flu because the symptoms are so similar.

Flu symptoms

Sudden onset of fever, chills, muscle aches, headache, fatigue

Cough, sore throat, sometimes runny nose

Symptoms similar to many other illnesses

In some cases, symptoms of novel H1N1 can include vomiting and diarrhea — not typical symptoms of seasonal flu

Source: Mower County Community Health

Currently, there is no test to determine which kind of flu a person has; Toth said he is crossing his fingers for such a test by winter.

Symptoms of H1N1 are very similar to those of seasonal flu. A person with H1N1 could be affected from seven to 14 days, or less, depending on the individual. Fever, chills, body aches, fatigue, cough and other seasonal flu symptoms are common, in addition to possible vomiting or diarrhea, which are not usually associated with seasonal flu.

“Today, it is no more dangerous than seasonal flu,” Toth said. “It’s actually more mild, but that could change.”

Unlike the seasonal flu, the elderly are the least likely to be affected by H1N1. People 6 months old through age 24 and pregnant women are at the biggest risk. The H1N1 novel flu is a virus those born after 1950 have not been exposed to before.

According to Mower County Community Health, 62.7 percent of hospitalized cases of H1N1 are in children 18 and under; the median age of hospitalized cases is 12 years old. Many have one or more underlying conditions, including asthma.

The concern is not so much the flu itself and its effect on humans as the number of people it could effect at one time. Large percentages of the workforce and student population could be absent as a result of H1N1.

Officials emphasize that staying home is vital, and do not visit a hospital or other medical facility — call first.

“If someone in your household is ill, but you are not, you do not have to stay home,” explained Margene Gunderson, director of Mower County Community Health Services.

“If you call the patient advisory nurse, they will have triage criteria,” Toth said. “Austin Medical Center has pretty aggressive planning program for H1N1,” Toth said. The hospital is continually updating their process as new information comes in.

Human trials are underway for a novel H1N1 vaccine. If it becomes available, it will be so in very limited quantities, and to those of very high priority, such as pregnant women.

“We are going to have to work on the education piece,” Toth said.

The antiviral prescription drug Tamiflu, sometimes used to treat seasonal flu symptoms, is available. However, it is not guaranteed.

A timeline for when or if H1N1 could converge on Austin is unknown, but like seasonal flu, wintertime is when it is more prevalent.

“As we get colder and we get more confined, it will be more likely to spread,” Toth said.

The seasonal flu kills thousands of people per year, and although the death rate from H1N1 has been very low, it is possible there could be deaths as a result of the pandemic.

“It’s possible we could have some deaths in a community as a result of this,” Toth said. “We have to plan for its presence and we have to survive it. Right now, the number of people dying from this is not high.”

Toth encourages the public to remain calm, especially if you or someone you know may have H1N1 symptoms.

Prevention is important now more than ever for this highly-contagious flu.

Frequently wash hands, avoid sharing beverages and do not touch your face. If you have symptoms of the flu, stay home and out of the public if possible and call your doctor.

“This is a time to be much more paranoid than we used to be,” Toth said.

As of Aug. 25, there have been 7,983 hospitalized cases in the United States and 522 deaths. There have been 263 hospitalized cases in Minnesota and three deaths.