Community prepares for H1N1 virus

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Local health officials say the virus should cause caution, not panic

By Kate Darnell

While swine flu continues to dominate national news, Harrison Memorial Hospital director Sheila Currans said  the public shouldn’t panic.

“We’re making every effort to be prepared for the potential,” Currans said.

Currans said eight individuals in the community have tested positive for H1N1, formerly known as the swine flu.

“We do know we have H1N1 in this county,” she said.

Appearing in the United States in April, Currans said H1N1 has attracted media and heightened health attention because the virus is new.

“It’s not as scary as we thought it was going to be in April,” said Dr. Stephen Besson, M.D., who specializes in internal medicine and pediatrics and is chairman of the HMH Infection Control Committee.

Besson and Currans said they are both impressed that the community and their patients haven’t panicked from the threat of H1N1.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 556 people have died and 8,843 have been hospitalized due to the virus.

Of those people diagnosed in Harrison County, Currans said none have been hospitalized.

“Nobody has been acutely ill...” she said. “Most have recovered very nicely.”

While Currans said she continues to receive updates on the progression of the virus, the death toll still remains low when compared to the 36,000 deaths from seasonal flu each year.

“The seasonal flu is probably more dangerous than this (H1N1),” Currans said.

Currans said H1N1 can be compared to a mild flu case.

“It’s something to watch out and be aware of, but not be panicked about,” she said.

The deaths and hospitalizations from H1N1, Currans said, usually occurred in patients with other medical conditions, like asthma, cancer and pregnant women.

“Typically you see that (hospitalization and death) in people that are less immune to fight off the virus,” she said.

According to the CDC, the virus is spread through droplets from human to human, usually when one person coughs or sneezes.

The CDC reports that when the new virus first appeared, many genes were similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs, hence the ‘swine flu’ title.

Currans said more research and information has indicated the virus is very different from that virus that circulates in pigs, leading to the virus being renamed ‘H1N1.’

The CDC says that symptoms of the virus are similar to flu symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue.

Currans said H1N1 is more common in younger adults and children, with older adults (49 years and older) possibly carrying antibodies to the virus that could make those individuals more immune.

Besson said precautions against the virus should be taken before symptoms begin.

“Prevention is better than the cure,” he said.

Besson said he recommends staying hydrated, exercising, plenty of Vitamin C and maintaining a nutritional diet.

“But the biggest thing is hand washing,” Besson said, adding that hands (all the way up to elbows) should be washed with soap and warm water.

Besson said hand sanitizer also works to kill germs, but should be used with caution around children who might swallow the product if unsupervised.

Besson said he also recommends that people wash their face as well.

“The virus can live two to eight hours on surfaces,” Currans said.

Besson said crowded groups or areas are a likely place to catch the virus, adding that he recommends hand washing after returning from that crowded area.

Currans said HMH does have the antiviral medication for H1N1.

With the effects of H1N1 usually lasting five to six days (as opposed to the average seven to 10 days with seasonal flu), Besson said often patients treated several days into the virus aren’t given the antiviral.

Currans said it is important for those individuals that have H1N1 symptoms to stay home.

“If you’re sick, stay home,” she said. “If your body ache is gone and your fever is gone, then you can go back.”

Currans’ advice to her hospital employees is being echoed by the Harrison County school system.

“In order for a child to learn, they’re going to have to feel good,” said District Nurse Judy Feeback.

Feeback said a letter was sent home to parents last month explaining the symptoms of H1N1.

Feeback said the letter recommends keeping the student home an extra day after they begin feeling better, in order to assure the virus has left their system before returning to school.

“We want them to be free of a fever for 24 hours before returning to school,” she said. “This is something that can be easily caught... that’s the problem.”

Feeback said schools have taken extra cleaning precautions, along with providing hand sanitizer in classrooms and encouraging students to wash their hands.

Assistant Superintendent DeeGee Fischer said while the number of absences are higher than the school system would like, they aren’t ‘astronomical.’

“We’re not scared at this point,” Fischer said.

The school system averaged 145.2 absences a day last week, those absence totals ranging from 105 students out on Wednesday to 184 students absent on Friday.

While those students absent due to H1N1 do not qualify for homebound status (due to the virus being a communicable disease), Feeback said parents are allowed to pick up the students’ work at the school.

“They can make up all the work,” Feeback said.

Feeback said the school hasn’t been alerted of any H1N1 cases among students. However, she said, doctors and parents are not required to report H1N1 cases to the school.

Currans said H1N1 vaccines are currently being produced by five companies, with target groups taking the vaccine on a trial basis.

“There’s no vaccine that’s side-effect free,” Currans said.

At a Chamber of Commerce membership luncheon, WEDCO Public Health Director Crystal Caudill told Chamber members that the health department has no word yet on when or how many vaccines they will be receiving later this year.

“The federal government provides the state with vaccines,” Caudill said, adding that high risk groups will be the first to receive the vaccine.

Currans said while HMH cannot order the vaccine, a task force group has been established to decide which employees will receive the vaccines designated for the hospitals’ 350 physicians and employees.

“We’ve put together a group of people that will decide how to handle the H1N1 vaccine,” Currans said.

Currans said healthcare workers will be encouraged to receive the vaccine first.

For more information on H1N1, visit www.medlineplus.gov.