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Public health gears up for nasty flu season

It's that time of year again - the sneezing, the wheezing, the dripping, the stuffiness, the chills and the fever.

It's that annoying part of life called flu season.

Health officials from the Minnesota Department of Health, along with Douglas County Public Health and local healthcare facilities, are stressing the importance of getting a yearly seasonal flu vaccine.

Getting vaccinated is being hailed as "the first and most important step in protecting against seasonal flu."

Seasonal flu vaccination is especially important for people at high risk of serious flu complications, including young children, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes or heart and lung disease, and people 65 years of age and older, noted Sandy Tubbs, director of Douglas County Public Health.

In addition, she said that seasonal flu vaccine is also important for healthcare workers and other people who live with or care for high-risk people to prevent giving the flu to those at high risk.

This year, state and local health officials are highly recommending that people get their seasonal flu vaccine as soon as it is available. Most local clinics now have the vaccine available and community flu shot clinics have been scheduled beginning next week, noted Tubbs.

Health officials are also stressing that the seasonal flu vaccine, however, does not guard against novel H1N1, which is a new flu virus.

She expects the flu season will start earlier and last longer this year, and that the H1N1 virus will appear first. "As we progress further into the fall and winter, we will see both the regular seasonal influenza, as well as the H1N1 virus," said Tubbs.

People may have the same symptoms with H1N1, but they are caused by a different strain of virus than the seasonal flu, she added.

Tubbs also said that while there is often a desire to know whether or not a person has H1N1 or seasonal influenza, "it doesn't matter as the symptoms and the treatment are identical for both strains."

Most people will not require medical treatment, will rather need to stay home, get plenty of rest, drink lots of liquids and take a fever-reducing agent.

Currently, a separate vaccine for the H1N1 virus is being developed and should be available later this fall for specific target groups. The H1N1 vaccine is expected to include two shots that are given three to four weeks apart or in a flu mist.

Immunity, or protection, from the H1N1 virus, said Tubbs, will not occur until two weeks after the second dose of the H1N1 vaccine.

The specific target groups for the H1N1 vaccine are different than the target groups for the seasonal influenza vaccine. The target groups for H1N1 include:

  • Pregnant women.
  • People who live with or care for children younger than 6 months of age.
  • Healthcare workers and emergency response personnel.
  • All children, adolescents and young adults who are 6 months of age through 24 years of age.
  • People ages 25-64, who are at risk of complications because of an underlying medical or immune system condition, including conditions that interfere with breathing, chronic diseases including lung, cardiovascular disease (except hypertension), kidney disease, liver disease, metabolic conditions and suppressed immune systems.

When the H1N1 vaccine becomes available, those in the targeted groups are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated. Good advice for staying healthier at any time, Tubbs said, include the following:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or cough into your elbow.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough and sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Stay home from work and/or school if you are sick with flu symptoms. Stay home for 24 hours after the fever is gone without using fever-reducing medicine.