Health officials still battling with flu epidemic

By Dawn M. Aerts

Iron County Today

David Heaton keeps a very large container of hand-sanitizer at his desk.

At the Iron County Public Health department, he keeps dozens of the anti-viral soap dispensers at work stations as a first line of defense in a season known for virulent germs. Influenza activity is still widespread this year in Utah, with a vaccine said to be far less than 30 percent effective.

Heaton, who has spent the past 10 years as Public Information Officer, fills his day with getting essential information out to the public and media: that’s everything from radio announcements and social media blogs, to informing 70,000 readers through the Southwest Utah Public Health Foundation magazine and articles, three times a year.

His focus is Southern Utah and five counties where the H3N2 has emerged as virulent and tough; where you will find the residual carry-over strain of the H1N1 virus (Swine Flu, pandemic of 2009), and the Influenza B virus which mainly affects younger people. There are lesser-pronounced strains, and variants too.

“Basically, we know that a virus mutates, so they (CDC) tweak the vaccines, take a well-educated guess and pick the top three or four (to address),” said Heaton of a national vaccine process. “We actually never see a mild flu season. So in an average year, there can be 30,000 people or more who die from the flu, or from complications of the flu.”

This year, the CDC and health professionals are tackling the H1N1 and the predominate H3N2, which according to Quartz data published by Canadian studies is only about 17 percent effective against a strain that may prompt 80 percent of the infections. The National Institute of Health is directly involved with flu vaccination development.

According to Heaton, the H3N2 strain hit those who had not been exposed before (children); those who had less immunity in general, and the elderly, over age 64.

“In southern Utah, we measure the impact by looking at each county: Beaver, Garfield, Kanab, Iron and Washington Counties. The overall ranking of transmission, can be minimal, low to moderate, up to high, as health departments report numbers of hospitalized flu cases in each county.”

Once the advised vaccination is produced, shipment goes out in September and “once the vaccine goes out, that is it for the year,” said Heaton of CDC experts who look to the Southern Hemisphere for any adjusted response to strains. In northern Utah, Hepatitis A has become an emerging concern for restaurant goers, and in food preparation. The good news is that the Hepatitis A vaccine is said to be 90 percent effective.

“Our health professionals try to get the prevention message out all year,” said Heaton. “That’s using hand-sanitizer, handwashing; keeping hands away from your face (nose, mouth and eyes) and of course staying home to avoid spreading the virus.” With that, some of the transmission of flu strains can be carried through droplets in the air, up to six-feet out. The flu season, which generally runs from October 1 through early April, has up and down trend lines. This year the trend has gone up across the country.

“We know that this vaccine has not been fully effective, but it can still make the flu (symptoms) less severe, so there are benefits,” said Heaton. In the meantime, health experts will be looking at hospitalization numbers for confirmed flu patients; various influenza strains, along with the more common flu and cold numbers.

While people are encouraged to recover at home using over the counter medications, Heaton urges people to pay attention to more severe symptoms: “If a fever doesn’t go down, if there are problems with breathing, (eating, drinking), or for those who have (underlying) health conditions, you should visit a doctor’s office.”

This year, young children and older adults were at particular risk.

It is the Southwest Utah Public Health Department’s role to promote wellness and the prevention of disease. “We had some mass vaccination event-days this fall, where individuals could come at a low cost, ($20) or no cost with some insurance plans. So people could drive up (on a scheduled day or time) and get immunized at what we call, ‘flu shootouts.’’

“This is still a regular flu season,” said Heaton of the five counties, “but there is always an effort to do a better vaccine.”


Caption: Dave Heaton, public information officer for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, along with nurse Michelle Anderson, are part of an effort to share preventive health information and to provide vaccinations that can make a difference in the seasonal uptick of transmission that include H3N2, H1N1 and other variant strains.

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