Schools, Red Cross brace for H1N1 flu

Published 7:19 am Thursday, August 20, 2009

Schools, hospitals and businesses are preparing for the likelihood of the H1N1 virus coming to the Austin area.

Formerly known as the swine flu, the H1N1 novel influenza is a virus those born after 1950 have not been exposed to before, said Vince Linch, disaster services director for the Mower County Chapter of the American Red Cross.

“Our bodies have already seen the seasonal ones, or we can get inoculations for them,” Linch explained. H1N1 is actually a common virus, he said. This specific strain, however, is more likely to affect people ages 6-25.

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“That span of time is children in schools — primary and secondary — and people in college, and the young workforce,” Linch said. “Some of the businesses are anticipating maybe a 30 percent absent rate.

Children ages 5 and younger, particularly those under age 2;

People 65 and older;

Pregnant women;

Adults and children who have chronic health conditions including chronic lung problems such as asthma and metabolic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease and certain blood diseases;

Adults and children who have a lowered immune system from medications or chronic health conditions such as HIV; and

Residents of nursing homes and other chronic-care facilities.

Source: Minnesota Department of Health

“The difficult part of this pandemic right now is the age group in which the people are getting this H1N1,” he said.

The Red Cross is hosting an H1N1 seminar in Spanish today at 7 p.m. at their office, 305 Fourth Ave. N.W., and will hold another Thursday, Aug. 27 at the same time for English speakers. The Mower County Senior Center scheduled a seminar for early today as well.

Health authorities stopped compiling reports of H1N1 last spring because there are too many cases and the work is time-consuming, Linch said. However, they are monitoring the movement of the virus in the southern hemisphere — India, South Africa — where their seasonal flu season is underway. The virus could likely appear here when the seasonal flu season begins, in October or November, Linch said.

Symptoms of H1N1 mimic those of seasonal flu. However, explained Brigitte Campbell, executive assistant of the Red Cross, those exposed should not visit a medical facility to prevent contamination. It is not considered dangerous, she said. Those who should take extra preventative measures include pregnant women; daycare and health care workers; asthma sufferers; and those with underlying medical conditions.

“You are just going to be sick and you might be laying on your back for a week,” Campbell said. “Hydration and rest — and you can say that about the seasonal flu. Just call your doctor.”

Prevention is key, Campbell said. Hand-washing, covering coughs and staying home when sick are vital.

School districts have been providing information for parents and planning for the possible pandemic this fall.

Tricia Browning, supervisor for health services at Austin Public Schools, said they have been disseminating information since last spring in newsletters, and meet continually with public health officials.

“It is something we need to be prepared for,” said Browning, who explained they do not have any estimates as to how many staff and students could be affected at any one time.

Browning said those with chronic conditions should consult their physicians for advice. The district has discussed mass vaccinations with public health, although when or even if the vaccinations will be available is still unknown.

The Red Cross is stressing that this is not a scare — the possibly of H1N1 is very real.

“We are seeing it,” Campbell said. “There are cases being diagnosed. It’s not like we are just coming up with this — we have statistics to look at.”

She said skeptics are going to be “the hardest people to reach” and are most likely to spread contamination.

Recent pandemics and pandemic scares worldwide have included the avian A/H5N1 flu virus in the late 1990s, which killed several people in Hong Kong, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (more commonly known as SARS), a form of pneumonia, which raised concerns of a pandemic in 2003.