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Updated 5:00 PM October 25, 2005




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Health officials: Prepare now for flu season

Increasingly colder temperatures are a reminder that winter is just around the corner, bringing with it bouts of illness. In addition to the common cold, a frequent affliction is influenza, which is a contagious respiratory disease caused by the influenza virus.

The normal flu season lasts from December to March, says Robert Winfield, director of University Health Service (UHS).

While there currently are no outbreaks reported in the state of Michigan, now is the time to prepare for the influenza virus, he says. Vaccinations, which take place from October through early December, are the primary method of controlling the virus, but many will recall last year's shortage that left many people without protection against the flu.

Winfield says UHS has received its full allocation of the flu vaccine. Like most other facilities, however, the health service is using the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and will vaccinate high-risk individuals first.

High-risk individuals are the very young, those over age 65, pregnant women or people with underlying diseases like asthma, diabetes, emphysema or heart disease, who are more susceptible to complications that may arise with influenza, and health care workers.

Larry Ligeski, administrative manager of healthcare, University Hospital Pharmacy Administration, orders all vaccinations for the hospital. He says the lessons learned in previous years were applied when it comes to prioritizing the vaccination process.

Flu vaccine levels are adequate at the hospital, Ligeski says, but adds that shipments come in two groups—the first for high-priority individuals and second for health care professionals to distribute at their discretion.

"Hopefully it'll be a quiet season," Ligeski says.

Stan Reedy, medical director of the Washtenaw County Public Health Department, says the question of shortages is a complex one.

"The national total amount of available flu vaccine is not known at this time," Reedy says. He notes that Chiron Corporation, a producer of the vaccine, did not make any last year and was partly responsible for shortages. Chiron announced Oct. 18 that it would be producing the low end of what it expected, and Reedy says it is not known whether this could cause a shortage or not.

"Most [suppliers] have ended up getting most if not all of the vaccine they ordered," Reedy says. "In some situations there may be more demand of that provider than they actually have ordered vaccine. It may or may not be possible later in November or December to actually order additional vaccine."

Reedy says early laboratory testing of positive flu cases this year have identified strains that are similar to the flu in the vaccine, which is a sign that the efficacy will be high. Vaccinations have about a 70 to 90 percent effectiveness rate when well matched to the influenza, according to the CDC.

Winfield says there are a number of other respiratory viral illnesses during the late fall and early winter that are less severe. There are four key symptoms of influenza, however, that differentiate the virus from the common cold or any other sickness.

Within 24 hours, the individual will experience a severe cough, headache, muscle aches and a fever of more than 101 degrees, Winfield says. He adds that malaise typically accompanies these symptoms, which is a feeling of tiredness and lack of energy that can linger for two weeks but usually lasts a week.

If people feel the onset of symptoms, Winfield says they should seek medical attention within 48 hours to reduce the manifestation and duration of the illness.

He says it is important to note that once there is an epidemic, there are essential preventative measures that faculty, staff and students can take in order to reduce the chances of getting the flu.

"The best protection is hand washing after touching door knobs, faucet handles, copy machines, where people share the use of the surface," Winfield says. "Also, covering one's cough protects people. One doesn't need to be worried about one's keyboard or telephone if you're the only one using it. But during the epidemic they're carried in droplets and on surfaces."

Winfield says students probably are more at risk for acquiring the disease due to living and learning in close quarters, but they are in an age group that has a low rate of complications.

With recent news reports about the avian influenza in the global media, anxiety may arise about local outbreaks, but Winfield says this strain of flu is of little concern to the United States at this time.

"It's sufficient to say that avian influenza, which is spreading worldwide, is not a threat in this country and there are limited cases worldwide in humans at the present time," Winfield says.

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