Health officials remain on guard as flu season nears

This year’s flu season doesn’t seem to be a pandemic launch of a new strain like last year’s H1N1 virus, but public health officials are still urging precaution and prevention.

A seasonal flu vaccine will be offered this year that will protect against three strains of influenza including H1N1, also known as swine flu. While seasonal flu has begun circulating throughout the country, it has not yet hit New Hampshire and no new strains of the virus are popping up, according to state officials.

The state has not had a positive flu test since April, said Deputy State Epidemiologist Dr. Jodie Dionne-Odom, but officials are urging everyone age 6 months and older to receive the new vaccination. The only people not recommended to have the vaccine are babies younger than 6 months and people with severe egg allergies.

“People who were vaccinated last year still need to get this vaccination because it targets different strains,” Dionne-Odom said. “We can’t say if the virus will be the same in predominance where younger people were affected more than older people, so we are preparing everyone. Everyone should be vaccinated. It really is the best way to protect yourselves.”

New Hampshire is expected to receive state-ordered shipments of flu vaccine later this month. The state oversees ordering vaccines for children through its childhood immunization program, and those shipments are expected to go out to health care providers by month’s end. Providers order on their own for adults.

Most people will need only one shot, but children younger than age 9 who are getting their first flu vaccine or who had only one swine flu shot last year will need two, a month apart, to prime their immune systems. There is also a nasal mist version of the vaccine for people age 2 to 49.

Last year, from fall through spring, youth were hit hardest by H1N1 and seasonal flu, with sometimes hundreds of students absent from schools at a time. The state is beginning to conduct school surveillance, Dionne-Odom said, which includes constant contact with school nurses and monitoring absentee rates.

“Absenteeism rates were very high last year. When you look overall, it really affected kids very heavily. We just don’t know this year,” she said. “The Centers for Disease Control (and Prevention) thinks it will continue to serve in higher numbers in younger people. We think it’s going to continue to circulate in school-age kids. That’s why we’re trying to get the message out for everyone to get vaccinated.”

Despite the drastic numbers of sick students seen in some schools, Judy Lewis, head nurse at Stratham Memorial School, saw the exact opposite with her students. “Last year, the H1N1 and all that, we had all this in place and I didn’t think it was that bad of a season,” Lewis said. “My healthiest school year was last year.”

That could be because so many precautionary measures were taken, including touting hand washing, providing information to parents and students on proper habits, and placing soaps and sanitizer throughout the building.

“We just tried to be prepared. I haven’t heard that it’s going to be any worse,” Lewis said. “The biggest thing is to teach kids the proper ways to handle their tissues when they blow their nose, wash their hands every chance they get, coughing into their sleeve, staying away from other kids who are sick, and keeping your kids home if they are sick.”

Proper nutrition, plenty of fluids and enough sleep also are important factors to get students through flu season, Lewis said.

Last year, 100 million doses of the flu vaccine were given out, Dionne-Odom said. A range of 100 million to 115 million vaccinations should be created to meet the demand this year, but Dionne-Odom said it is unclear how prevalent H1N1 will be compared to last year.

“The second year can sometimes be more severe, but it’s comparable or less severe in most cases. We do expect H1N1 will continue to be the predominant strain, but the seasonal strain may take over.”

No public vaccination clinics have been set up at this point, but Dionne-Odom encouraged those looking for a vaccination to visit their health care provider or pharmacist. The state is working on a pilot program to vaccinate children in schools, she said.

Dionne-Odom suggested everyone get the vaccination as quickly as possible because it takes two weeks for the vaccination to reach its full protection. The duration of the vaccine is eight to 12 months.

“There is no reason to wait until you see illness because you may be one of those people who get ill,” she said.

Sea Coast Online

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