Flu outlook always uncertain

Could another H1N1 crisis be lurking?

National health organizations say it’s difficult to predict this year's flu season because the virus always changes from year to year.

Catawba County health officials still say preventive measures like vaccinations can never hurt. They tout flu vaccinations, hand washing and other everyday preventative habits as the best ways to make sure you’re not struck by the seasonal flu or a potential new strand of the virus.

“Our big message is to really get people vaccinated,” said Lynn Laws, community health nurse supervisor at Catawba County Public Health. “I think people are on board with that now after events like H1N1 came out a couple of years ago. People are more inclined.”

Catawba County Public Health will offer vaccination hours and several clinics this flu season, but Laws said public health has “scaled down” its program because of the increasing number of vaccination and education options popping up throughout the county.

“Years ago, you didn’t have that many opportunities to get vaccinated,” Laws said. “This year, we anticipate not as many people, not because there may be less people with the flu, but because there are more available options.”

The 2010-11 flu season was not as severe as the H1N1 pandemic in 2009-10, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Still, there were 36 flu-related deaths in North Carolina last year. The state also identified more than 500 influenza virus isolates in the 2010-11 flu season. Those are tested and verified cases of the flu and do not include diagnoses that are not tested, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Last year’s flu season peaked in February, but the CDC said cases of influenza A (H3N2) as well as 2009 influenza A (H1N1) viruses were commonly reported starting in November and ending in March.

Adults older than 65 and children under age 5 are most at risk for the virus and its complications. In 2010-11, the H3N2 strand affected seniors the most. Citizens with medical conditions are also at risk for the flu, and the CDC recommends those suffering from asthma, chronic lung disease, blood disorders and other conditions should especially be vaccinated.

Laws said everyone should still practice preventive measures to stay flu-free.

The flu is a virus and there may be many different variations of that virus that the shot might not cover,” Laws said. “Even if you get the vaccine, you could still get (the flu) if there is a different strain out there.”
The shot does prevent the strains that have been commonly tested and acknowledged in recent years, Laws said.

In addition to flu vaccinations, the CDC recommends these daily habits to stay away from the virus:
n Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. This will block the spread of droplets from your mouth or nose that could contain germs.

Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Germs spread this way.

Try to avoid close contact with sick people.

If you or your child get sick with a respiratory illness, like the flu, limit contact with others as much as possible to help prevent spreading illness. Stay home for at least 24 hours after a fever is gone, except to seek medical care or other necessities. Fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.

If an outbreak of flu or another illness occurs, follow public health advice. This may include information about how to increase distance between people and other measures.

Health tips for work

n Find out about your employer’s plans for outbreaks of flu and other illnesses, and determine if flu vaccinations are offered on site.

Routinely clean frequently touched objects and surfaces, including doorknobs, keyboards, and phones, to help remove germs.

Make sure your workplace has an adequate supply of tissues, soap, paper towels, alcohol-based hand rubs, and disposable wipes.

Train others on how to do your job so they can cover for you in case you or a family member gets sick and you have to stay home.

If you begin to feel sick while at work, go home as soon as possible.

Information provided by the CDC