Experts: Get vaccinated now, prevent third wave of H1N1 flu laterFlu expert Dr. Linda Van Etta says there’s one simple way to stop the H1N1 influenza virus from staging a third wave comeback this winter, sickening and killing thousands more people. Get a vaccination.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Flu expert Dr. Linda Van Etta says there’s one simple way to stop the H1N1 influenza virus from staging a third wave comeback this winter, sickening and killing thousands more people.
Get a vaccination.
But demand for H1N1 vaccinations has been light in recent weeks across the region, and Van Etta, St. Luke’s hospital epidemiologist and an expert in influenza pandemics, said she is worried that the ounces of prevention in flu shots will sit on hospital shelves when they should be in people’s bodies.
“The way you stop influenza is vaccination,” she said. “This vaccine has proven very safe. The doses are out there; we have them now. But I’m worried people see that it’s diminishing, that people aren’t getting sick right now ... and they won’t get vaccinated.”
While the Northland has seen new H1N1 cases diminish to almost undetectable levels, the flu could make a comeback, especially as people take winter vacations to exotic destinations and as college students spread across the country and globe on holiday breaks.
“What are people doing right now? They’re traveling. And some of them will be traveling into places where H1N1 is still prevalent,” Van Etta said. “It’s still widespread in parts of southeast Europe, Southeast Asia and China.”
There’s also the possibility that the H1N1 bug could morph into something stronger and resistant to treatments, she said, adding punch and more casualties to a third wave.
“The more people that get immunized, the less spread there is. It’s a community issue,” said Guy Peterson, St. Louis County Public Health director. Peterson said even more vaccine is set to be distributed across the country, including to large chain stores. The county will keep offering free clinics into January.
“There’s plenty of vaccine available. It hasn’t gone out as fast as we thought. But we had 300 people show up in Ely [on Tuesday] so maybe people are starting to listen,’’ Peterson said. “We want people to know this is open to all ages now and that they really should get vaccinated.’’
Van Etta said each flu pandemic acts differently. The 1918 flu killed most of its victims in the second wave, and the third wave was relatively light.
“But we just don’t know. We still don’t know more than we know about how pandemics work,’’ Van Etta said, adding that people should get both the seasonal and H1N1 flu vaccines as soon as possible. Older kids and adults can get both at the same time.
The first wave of 2009 novel H1N1, a new strain of flu never before seen, occurred last spring. Cases diminished by summer, but then a major second wave swept the U.S. and the world this fall. Van Etta said an estimated 200,000 people have been hospitalized and 10,000 people have likely died from H1N1 across the U.S. this year, although the confirmed count is much lower because most people are never tested.
And while H1N1 hasn’t sickened as many people as the annual seasonal flu might during a winter, it has attacked many more young people. While nearly 90 percent of seasonal flu casualties are people age 65 and older, most of the H1N1 deaths — 87 percent — have been people younger than that. Ten percent have been children, an unusually high number.
“In terms of how many years of life potential it has stolen, H1N1 has had a dramatic impact,’’ she said. “If you talk to families who had a young person get sick or die, I’m sure they won’t call this a mild pandemic.’’
State officials have echoed Van Etta’s calls for people to get vaccinated, even as new cases of H1N1 continue to decline.
Across Minnesota only one new death was confirmed last week — an elderly Dakota County resident. That’s the fewest deaths in a week since early September. Since June, 57 Minnesotans have died from flulike symptoms, most of them confirmed as 2009 novel H1N1. There was only one H1N1 hospitalization last week, down from hundreds per week in October, and no schools or nursing homes reported new outbreaks.