H1N1: Flu by any other name still feels the same
It is hard to imagine that anything good could come from the H1N1 flu but that just might be the case this flu season.
Dr. Paul McGinnis of Hudson Physicians says the influenza viruses, the seasonal variety and H1N1, are something we have to live with but between a lot of press, the available vaccines and some regular hygiene practices, the illness doesn't have to spread as far or as fast.
McGinnis says H1N1 has drawn a lot of attention because of its status as a "pandemic," which refers to geography more than anything else about it. It is a pandemic virus because of how widespread it is across the globe. "It is also unusual for a virus to persist after the typical flu season which generally begins in early winter and ends by spring. This virus has persisted through the summer," said McGinnis.
While a lot of the attention has gone to H1N1, McGinnis said the seasonal flu is responsible for about 30,000 deaths every year in the United States. It can be a serious and sometimes fatal disease especially in people with underlying conditions such as respiratory illness, heart and liver disease. H1N1 affects people in this category in much the same way but also seems to also affect younger, healthy people as well in greater numbers.
McGinnis said the good news about H1N1 is that it doesn't appear to be as severe a virus as the seasonal variety and doesn't seem to last as long but does seem to be very contagious. "Places like schools and dormitories where lots of young people are living together or in close quarters are seeing larger outbreaks. If we can control it in those places, we could really stem the spread."
The heightened attention to hand washing, covering coughs and staying home when the flu hits will have the same effect on both the seasonal and H1N1 according to the doctor. Frequent hand washing with soap and water is best but hand sanitizers are a good backup. Covering a cough or coughing into an elbow can keep the virus from going airborne. But staying home once symptoms show up is critical. The recommendation is to remain home until being symptom-free without any fever-reducing medication for 24 hours. It is not uncommon for it to take 5-7 days to recover enough to go back to a daily routine.
"This can be a burden, especially for parents with sick kids but it really is important. If the community as a whole takes these precautions, it could make a dramatic difference in how much flu we see this season."
The symptoms for H1N1 and the seasonal flu are similar. McGinnis describes flu as "a cold on steroids." "You feel like you've been hit by a truck and then it backed up and hit you again. It can involve a sore throat, a cough, vomiting, headache and/or a fever in any combination. He says patients often come in with a sore throat, take a strep test and when it comes back negative, assume they are not contagious and head back to work. "That's a mistake. You are still contagious and can spread the virus," said McGinnis.
If a person suspects they have the flu, it is not always necessary to see a physician. According to McGinnis, those experiencing mild or moderate symptoms and a fever less than 101.5 degrees can be treated at home with fluids, over-the-counter fever reducing medication and rest, and not risk infecting others. Those with underlying conditions or who have other risk factors should contact their physician. McGinnis said anyone with concerns about whether to come into the clinic or not, can contact the clinic with their questions.
Medications to treat the flu like Tamiflu and Relenza will only be administered to seriously ill patients at high risk like the chronically ill, very young children and pregnant women.
H1N1 vaccine is expected to be available by the end of this month and will be given first to the target group, age 6 months to 24. The vaccine will also be given to pregnant women, healthcare workers and to those caring for or working with infants. Those ages 25-64 with underlying conditions will also be in the priority group for the H1N1 vaccine.
Seasonal flu vaccine is available now at the Hudson Physicians Clinic and at the Quick Care Clinic at County Market. McGinnis said more than 3,000 flu shots have already been administered and that there should be no shortage of the seasonal vaccine. The H1N1 vaccine is expected to be available by the end of this month. The seasonal flu vaccine and the H1N1 vaccine will also be available at clinics around the county. For information about the flu and vaccines at Hudson Physicians go to www.hudsonphysicians.com/news. Schedules and locations of county clinics will appear on the county Web site at www.co.saint-croix.wi.us/Flu.