Preparations to minimize the threat of the H1N1 virus, commonly known as “swine” flu, are quickly being implemented in Brown County as the traditional flu season approaches this fall.
The new flu strain caught the nation by surprise last April and May, prompting some Texas schools to close and the University Interscholastic League to delay several state championship high school athletic events. But the virus has apparently stabilized, local health officials said, allowing medical scientists to work on a vaccine which is expected to be generally available by October.
“The virus hasn’t mutated, and state and national investigators have been able to learn more about it,” said Emily Gore, who today officially takes the position of public health preparedness coordinator at the Brownwood-Brown County Health Department. “Its symptoms are just like other flu strains. You have a fever of over 100 degrees, sore throat, chills and a cough. Some people also have gastrointestinal problems.”
Gore succeeds Jennifer McNiece, with whom she has worked part-time in that office for two years. A Howard Payne University graduate, Gore came to the health department as an intern before accepting the part-time job. Roy Jones has taken the position Gore left.
Brown County has had one confirmed case of H1N1 flu this year, Gore said, and that woman has made a full recovery. In Texas, some 5,200 residents have had the strain, with 270 needing hospitalization. The state region in which Brown County is included, which also covers the Dallas-Fort Worth area, has seen 725 cases.
“Texas has had 28 deaths, but all of those people had underlying conditions,” Gore said.
Separate reporting of swine flu cases ended July 15, Gore said. However, cases of flu that have been seen this summer, which is not the traditional flu season, are assumed to be swine flu. The spread of the virus last spring has also led to some testing for flu that might have not have otherwise been ordered outside of the season.
While the exact timetable is still uncertain, a vaccine is expected to be available for general use by October, or perhaps even late September, Gore said. When it is released, the vaccine will be made available to health care providers and health departments, and shots will be given first to segments of the population considered to be most at risk.
“In the first cases of H1N1, 80 percent of them were under age 18,” Gore said, “so school-age students will be a priority.”
Only 4 percent of the cases affected people older than 45, she added, so the priority chart will be in the reverse order of traditional flu vaccination campaigns.
“Older people don’t seem to be as susceptible to this strain,” Gore said. Even though H1N1 is a new flu, older people somehow have developed a type of resistance to it, perhaps a result of exposure to other strains in the past.
Priority groups, in order, will be people who have contact with infants under 6 months old, because they cannot receive the vaccine; children age 6 months to 5 years; students ages 5 to 24; women who are pregnant; and adults and children with chronic conditions — any whose immune systems are compromised or have heart and/or respiratory problems. Emergency medical workers and those employed in health care will also be a priority to receive the first vaccines.
“The vaccine will be issued in waves,” Gore said. “By December, we’ll probably have vaccine for everybody.”
The H1N1 vaccine will likely be a two-shot series for most individuals, Gore said, meaning that people will need to plan to have three flu shots this season. The third will be the shot for the traditional flu viruses for the coming year.
Gore said the health department is working with local physicians, Brownwood Regional Medical Center, Guardian EMS and other health providers here in making preparations. Planning for infant protection is being coordinated with local women’s and children’s health specialists and the WIC program administered through the health department. Coordination will also be extended to school districts.
“The CDC is not recommending closing schools any more,” Gore said. “That decision is going to be made by each school.”
For several years, the CDC and local health departments have been planning for a world flu pandemic, because the cycle that has been observed for several generations made it seem likely.
“We thought it was going to be bird (avian) flu,” Gore said. “But the good thing about that is that everyone had a plan in place when this happened last spring.”
Even though symptoms and consequences of “swine” flu are much like those of traditional flu, the strain is technically a pandemic because it is a new strain without a vaccine to prevent it, and it has been found throughout the world, Gore said. And Gov. Rick Perry’s emergency proclamation remains in effect because that designation facilitates delivery of medicines and supplies.
Gore said the Tamiflu and Relenza brand antivirals are available locally for patients whose doctors prescribe them, but those medications need to be administered within two days of infection to be effective.
“The important thing is to get to your doctor quickly when you get sick,” Gore said. “Don’t go to work or school; stay home. We recommend staying out for seven days, but you at least need to be out until your fever returns to normal without using a fever reducer.”
Gore said the standard good health practices recommended for avoiding the flu apply to H1N1 as well — wash hands frequently, and cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
“But the big one is stay home when you’re sick,” Gore said.
Information about the flu and suggested guidelines for individuals, families, schools, health care professionals, universities, congregate settings and employers can be found at www.dshs.state.tx.us/swineflu/.