Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Public health urges flu prevention

While three flu strains are already making Iowans miserable, doses of vaccine are going to waste in Buena Vista County, according to Public Health Director Sally Bonnesen.

"What are people thinking? It really concerns me that people are not ready," she said Monday. "We need a wake-up call."

BV Public Health is trying to provide just that. For the first time ever, they are putting a vaccine on sale - at $15, the shots will only cover the cost of the vaccine itself, and the department will not break even on service, Bonnesen said.

If people are interested, a nurse will be kept on duty at the Public Health office throughout the next few weeks. Rather than holding clinics, the department will be able to work around people's schedules and deliver vaccine whenever the public wants it.

Last year, the public awareness and demand for vaccine skyrocketed in the wake of an earlier shortage. The county ordered 600 adult doses, ran out immediately, was able to find 200 more doses, and used it all. "We went through the stuff like water - we couldn't keep up," Bonnesen said. "I just don't understand what has happened this year."

The county ordered 1,000 doses for this season, and has promoted vaccination steadily, but still has 400 doses unused, at risk of going to waste.

There is more than a couple of miserable days of the flu at risk, Bonnesen worries.

"With all the meningitis going around, the shots are very important. Of the 19 cases of meningitis so far this year in Iowa, 12-13 were contracted here in Buena Vista, Cherokee and Pocahontas counties." While the flu vaccine does not prevent the potentially-deadly meningitis, it does protect the immune system.

"Sixty percent of people carry the meningitis bacteria without ever knowing it. The flu can break down the immune system and make it easier for illnesses like meningitis to take hold. In this area in particular, I'm worried that we could see more people coming down with meningitis is people don't take good care of themselves."

For the flu, this year's vaccine seems to be an effective cocktail, Bonnesen said. Of the three strains identified in the state so far this season, the shots are designed to prevent at least two.

It may have some effectiveness for the third as well, although that has not yet been conclusively reported, the public health director noted.

"We sure don't want to throw it away," she said of the vaccine.

In addition to the adult vaccine, BV Public Health has plenty of children's vaccine still on hand as well. If the patient's insurance won't cover a shot for their child, she said the department will give the vaccine for free, although good-will donations are welcomed to help cover the costs.

For adults, anyone is welcome to call in and get a time for a shot for the discounted $15 price, for as long as the supply lasts.

While shots can still be effective taken up through March, it does take a short time for the vaccine to take effect, and flu season is already beginning, Bonnesen warns.

"The time is right now - yet before the end of December or in the very early part of January," she said.

Bonnesen sheepishly admits that last year was her first time getting a flu shot herself.

"I finally realized then that it wasn't about me. Getting the shot is a way to protect all the people around you, and that woke me up. I hope other people will see the importance of it this year, and that we are able to find use for all of the doses that we have on hand."

How bad will the flu be? It's anyone's guess.

The state has been preparing for a flu pandemic for years and stockpiling antiviral drugs, but since 2003 the possibility of the bird flu has heightened the urgency to get a plan in place.

Iowa has used a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention model to estimate how many people could become ill should a flu pandemic strike - up to 1 million people. The state also has counted how many licensed hospital beds it has - 11,731 - and state health officials said that would be enough for Iowa hospitals to handle those who become ill.

Although they are preparing for up to 35 percent of Iowans to get sick, state health officials said it's unlikely that many people would fall ill at once. The state also is estimating that as many as 2,000 Iowans could die from a pandemic flu, she said.

To prepare, Iowa has secured nearly 600,000 doses of antiviral drugs in forms to use once symptoms have arisen, should a pandemic develop of a flu strain for which a vaccine is not yet available. The state has also put together a plan for the transfer of overflow patients from hospitals into makeshift community health centers.

Businesses, school and churches need to encourage residents to prepare for a public health emergency.

"The big message we're pushing is personal preparedness, making sure you and your family are prepared ... " the state health department said this week.

Officials use a statewide surveillance network comprised of 22 hospitals as well as clinics, schools, child care centers, businesses and long term care centers, to identify and track diseases. "You can never predict what will happen," the department said. "All you can do is have all the channels in place so that when something does happen you can have a quick, rapid response."

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