Meeting focuses on H1N1 virus

Thursday, October 15, 2009

On Oct. 8, local community members gathered at the Crowder College Cassville Campus auditorium to learn about the signs, symptoms and effects of the H1N1 virus.

The Barry County Health Department and the Barry County Office of Emergency Management hosted the public information meeting, which was attended by around 20 individuals.

"Our goal is to educate you and answer your questions," said Kathleen King, Barry County Health Department administrator.

King introduced Robert Niezgoda, Missouri Public Health regional epidemiology specialist and planner, who presented a wide variety of information on the H1N1 virus, or the swine flu.

"Right now we are hearing H1, H2, H5, H2N2 and all kinds of other things," said Niezgoda. "The influenza virus is changing constantly. The concern is that this is a new strain of influenza that no one in the population has been infected with before.

"This virus could keep going through the population until there are no more people to infect because everyone has died, been vaccinated or developed natural immunities," said Niezgoda.

According to Niezgoda, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) expects more hospitalizations and more deaths to occur from the H1N1 virus. The CDC has estimated that 30,000 to 90,000 deaths related to the swine flu virus will occur in the United States this year.

"Right now we are seeing a flat rate of infection that is closer to the seasonal flu, which is a good thing," said Niezgoda. "During the regular seasonal flu between 5 and 20 percent of the population will catch the virus. Health officials expect this to infect 30 to 50 percent of the population. Worse case scenario businesses should plan on operating with 50 percent absenteeism."

Between Aug. 20 and Sept. 19 nearly 1,400 deaths and over 16,000 hospitalizations related to the H1N1 virus were reported in the United States.

Signs and symptoms of the H1N1 virus include: fever; cough; sore throat; runny or stuffy nose; body aches; headache; chills; fatigue; vomiting; and diarrhea. Symptoms usually last around three to five days.

"The majority of those who contract the virus do not require any special healthcare," said Niezgoda. "Some people do experience complications from the virus. If you experience shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness or anything out of the normal, you should seek healthcare."

Although the H1N1 virus can be spread by a cough or a sneeze, it is not an airborne virus. The illness is spread when individuals touch surfaces on which respiratory droplets have settled.

"When you touch things or surfaces where droplets have settled and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth you infect yourself with the virus," said Niezgoda. "One way to decrease the spread of the virus is to clean commonly touched surfaces."

Ordinary household cleaning products can be used to clean surfaces.

"Individuals are thought to be infected 24 hours before the onset of their symptoms and for 24 hours after their fever is gone," said Niezgoda. "Make sure your employees do not come back to work too soon. They could continue to be infectious."

The H1N1 virus incubates for one to four days before symptoms occur. Employees should not return to work until 24 hours after a fever has been reduced without the assistance of medication.

When the H1N1 vaccine becomes available later this month, pregnant women will be at the head of the line for the special flu shot. Pregnant women are a priority because 15 percent of the first deaths that occurred from the H1N1 virus were pregnant women.

The vaccine cannot be given to children who are under 6 months of age. In order to protect that age group from the virus, all childcare workers will have the opportunity to receive the vaccine this month also.

"Seniors have had the lowest rate of hospitalization and the lowest rate of cases," said Niezgoda. "We think that is because a similar virus circulated through the population several years ago and many seniors are now resistant to this one."

Currently, the health department does not know when it will begin receiving large quantities of the H1N1 vaccine.

"Its like aiming and trying to hit a moving target," said Niezgoda. "One week we are told that we will get this much. The next week we hear something different. There is going to be a lot of vaccine. It is just bottle necked right now."

Niezgoda reminded business owners to require their employees to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water is not available, hand sanitizer made with at least 62 percent alcohol can be used.

"Make sure that they know that they need to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth," said Niezgoda. "Also, stay at home if you are sick. We have been trying for years to get kids to go to school and employees to come to work.

"We have set up incentives for not missing class or work," said Niezgoda. "This encourages people to go to school or work when they are sick. We need to look at those policies."

Some of Niezgoda's other tips for decreasing the spread of the virus include: preparing a flu kit, which will allow a family to treat the illness without traveling to a convenience store or supermarket; social distancing; and remaining aware of how the virus is impacting the local area. In the event of a widespread outbreak, communities could consider cancelling events and classes.

"We don't know what is going to happen," said Niezgoda. "We could come through this with only a mild impact or we could have a lot of illnesses, a lot of absences and a big impact on our community. Now is the time to prepare for that."

Niezgoda encouraged local community members to visit or for more information on the H1N1 virus.

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