Area health organizations are asking residents to prepare for an expected emergence in the U.P. of the H1N1 influenza virus this fall.
Gerry Nault, a staff nurse at NMU’s health center, said that while no H1N1 cases have been reported in the U.P. yet, it is just a matter of time before the virus gets here.
“At some point it’s going to happen, the question is ‘How severe is it going to be?'” said Nault.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 2009 H1N1, or swine flu, is a new strain of influenza virus that is causing illness in people across the world. Most people who have been infected by the virus have reported symptoms similar to that of seasonal influenza and have recovered; however, 593 deaths have been attributed to H1N1.
According to the CDC, every state in the U.S. has reported at least some level of infection, and 9,079 cases have resulted in hospitalization as of Sept. 3, 2009.
Nault said NMU has for 20 years been a Sentinel Surveillance Site for the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH). This means that the health center sends reports and bacterial cultures from patients that demonstrate certain symptoms that are indicative of an illness. NMU’s participation in the program, along with other sites, helps the MDCH keep track of new viral infections, said Nault.
“It helps us keep an eye on where different influenzas are in the state,” she said.
Nault said that while there is not a commercially available vaccine for H1N1 yet, NMU’s health center and the Marquette County Health Department will be working together on a mass flu clinic as soon as one is made available.
Jill Fries, a health educator specialist and emergency preparedness coordinator for the Marquette County Health Department, said that the vaccine should be made available by the last week of November or the first week of December of 2009.
“However, that delivery date has changed several times. It could change, and it probably will,” said Fries.
The vaccine will probably arrive in small amounts at first, so the population will have to be prioritized. People from the ages of 6 months to 24 years old are in the first tier of prioritization for immunization. Fries said this is because H1N1 affects people within this age group the most.
“Researchers believe the reason that it affects young people is that the immune system over responds to the flu,” she said.
Until a vaccine is widely available, residents should focus on preparedness and prevention, said Fries.
“We believe H1N1 will be in Marquette County before the vaccine is available, and that’s why preparing and prevention is so important,” said Fries.
Another major goal for the Marquette County Health Department is keeping as many people out of the hospital as possible. Having many people who are infected with H1N1 entering the confined space of a hospital could result in already ill people getting sicker, said Fries.
“If you do get sick, there are tips on how to care for yourself or your loved ones at home,” said Fries.
Eating healthy, getting exercise, avoiding the noticeably ill and resting are all ways to avoid both seasonal influenza and H1N1. Another important measure to take is to wash your hands as often as possible, said Fries.
“If you get it [H1N1] on your hands and you rub your eyes, well, you just infected yourself,” she said.
Nancy Kenok, a senior international studies major at NMU, was in Mexico when the outbreak began.
“I wasn’t too far from Mexico City where the outbreak really got attention,” said Kenok.
Kenok, who is currently writing a research paper on pandemics, said that she felt the public overreacted to the outbreak.
“After one week [in Mexico] of this crazy scare, everything went back to normal,” she said.
Kenok said that while the media coverage may have been overblown, it is still important to practice precautions during flu season.
“I think people are failing to understand that it’s like any other flu. It’s a new strain that we haven’t seen before. The reason the numbers are increasing is because we aren’t immune to it yet. If you just use precautions that you’ve used throughout your life, you’ll probably be okay,” said Kenok.