Every day, public health departments act to protect members of our community from contagious diseases. In Thurston County, we have been working with partners for several years to prepare for an eventual disease pandemic (international disease outbreak). Meetings have taken place, relationships built, and plans written. We have experienced a number of disease outbreaks that tested our plans – SARS in 2003, West Nile Virus, H5N1 influenza in 2002.
Planning for a large disease outbreak became a reality this April with the arrival of H1N1 swine flu. It quickly became evident that this outbreak was well on its way to becoming a pandemic.
At the same time, there were a lot of unknowns: how severe the disease was going to be, whether medications were going to be effective, when to close schools and workplaces, and even who the highest risk groups were going to be.
In the last few months we have learned a lot more about pandemic H1N1 influenza (swine flu). For instance:
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• The majority of cases are in people born after 1957.
• Individuals with pre-existing chronic diseases such as heart and lung disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, immune compromised or who smoke, especially those under age 50, have higher risk of more severe disease and death.
• Pregnant women and very young children also appear to be more at risk.
Influenza symptoms are the same, whether it is seasonal flu, or swine flu. The include a sudden onset of fever more than 101 degrees, severe body aches, and a sore throat in majority of cases, lasting 4 to 5 days. Coughing and fatigue might last a week or two. Some individuals might also have headaches, vomiting and diarrhea.
Most people experience moderate symptoms and recover fully. Home care, rest, fluids, cold and fever remedies works for symptom relief. More severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing, or mental status changes indicates the need to seek professional health care.
Influenza is spread from person to person. Coughing and sneezing releases thousands of droplets causing exposure to persons within 3 feet of those with symptoms. Persons infected with influenza can be contagious from a day before symptoms show up until 7 days after they begin.
If you are diagnosed with influenza, you should stay home from work or school for at least 7 days. If still ill after 7 days, don’t return to work or school until at least 24 hours after your fever breaks.
The best way of preventing complications is by preventing exposure to influenza.
Covering your cough, washing your hands and staying home when you are ill all help prevent spread of disease.
Antiviral medications help to decrease symptoms by a day or two, but do not prevent complications or cure the disease.
A new vaccine against pandemic H1N1 influenza is being manufactured. This complex process takes months to complete. The new vaccine will be available during the late fall of 2009 and will be targeted for those at highest risk of complications of the new H1N1 influenza.
As we learn more during the coming months, reliable and timely information about H1N1 influenza will be available from the Health Department. You can call our recorded public information line 360-709-3080. The message is regularly updated. Information also is on our Web site www.co.thurston.wa.us/health. Health care providers receive fax and e-mail alerts that include recommendations for action that can prevent or control the spread of disease.
If you are a health care provider and want to receive these alerts, please contact Peggy Grenier by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 360-786-5277 and ask to be added to the list.
Individuals interested in assisting in pandemic preparedness or response (all skills are welcome - you do not have to be a medical professional) should register with the Thurston County Medical Reserve Corps.
For information about MRC, see www.co.thurston.wa.us/health/admin/preparedness/mrc.html. To register, please email MRC@co.thurston.wa.us. Units also are active in most counties in Western Washington – if you are interested contact your local health departments.
Dr. Diana Yu is the health officer for the Thurston County Public Health and Social Services Department.