- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The St. Mary’s County Health Department is gearing up for another flu season as plans are made for mass vaccinations at public schools, and warnings about the swine flu have already been posted at the county fairgrounds.
Melanie Gardiner, communicable disease program supervisor, said she hopes residents will heed advice given by the health department.
The flu season in the United States can begin as early as October and last as late as May.
“We’re not anticipating anything different than last year. Just your average flu season,” Gardiner said. But the seasonal flu is serious and can lead to hospitalization and fatalities, according to the health department.
Gardiner stressed that the No. 1 protection against the flu is getting a flu vaccine. The health department recommends everyone 6 months of age and older should get vaccinated against the seasonal flu each year.
Vaccinations will be offered free to students again this year at public elementary and middle schools.
Trish Wince, the St. Mary’s schools supervisor of health services, said the number of cases last year was below the norm, possibly because of the successful vaccination effort. She said she has not heard of any expectations about how bad the upcoming season might be.
Parents should expect letters home from school in the next week or two explaining the vaccination process and asking for permission to give the vaccine, Wince said. Clinics are scheduled through October at elementary and middle schools, with booster shots planned for the following month for those who have never had a flu vaccine before.
“I’m anticipating we’ll have enough” vaccine for any student or school staff member who wants a flu shot or nasal spray, Wince said.
The free vaccines will not be offered to high school students this year, she said.
Second to getting a vaccine, the best way to stem the spread of the disease is vigilant hand washing, health officials said. That is especially true among children.
Another way to help keep the disease from spreading is for people to stay home from school or work if they have the flu, Gardiner urged.
She said that a person should see their doctor if they have severe symptoms or if mild symptoms last “more than a couple days.”
Flu symptoms can be confused with those of the common cold or even allergies.
“If ever in doubt ... see your doctor and they’ll let you know,” Gardiner said.
The H3N2v variant of the swine flu is known to pass from pig to pig, occasionally from pig to human and rarely from human to human, Gardiner said. While there have been no confirmed cases of the swine flu in St. Mary’s this year, six residents in Queen Anne’s County have been infected.
Gardiner said that so far the H3N2v flu does not seem to be any more dangerous than a typical seasonal flu.
The St. Mary’s County Fair, which starts in two weeks, is taking extra precautions this year, especially where swine are on display. “They’ll be watching the pigs closely,” Gardiner said.
Fair officials have said signs will be posted to alert visitors to the health concerns. Extra hand-washing stations will go up, too.
“We watch the flu all year long,” Gardiner said. Vaccines are developed to treat whichever strands are most prevalent or dangerous.
In 2009, health officials rushed to head off the H1N1 variant of swine flu, which reached pandemic status worldwide.
The H1N1 variant was confirmed in several public and private schools in St. Mary’s County in 2009. That year doses of vaccines trickled in as school vaccinations clinics were delayed, some until as late as January.
“We gave more flu vaccines [that season] than ever before,” Gardiner said.
At elementary schools, more than 70 percent of students opted to get the H1N1 vaccine while 60 percent had the seasonal flu vaccine. At the middle and high schools, the participation rates hovered around 25 percent and 30 percent respectively for the H1N1 and seasonal flu vaccines.
According to health officials at the time, in St. Mary's there were 191 cases of H1N1 in the 2009-2010 season compiled by the health department, including about 20 hospitalizations.
The flu is not a reportable disease normally, but because of the nature of the H1N1 virus, the state health department at the time asked hospitals, doctors and others to report cases. Still, the final numbers were likely understated, health officials said.
Hospitals put in place visiting restrictions in late 2009 and early 2010 to help stop the spread of the flu.
Influenza is caused by a virus which can be spread by coughing, sneezing or nasal secretions. People infected with the flu virus may be able to infect others from one day prior to having symptoms and up to seven days or more after getting sick.
Young children, people 65 and older, pregnant women, and people with health conditions such as heart, lung or kidney disease, or a weakened immune system are at high risk of developing serious complications from the seasonal flu.