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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on January 22nd, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 46 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 46

A Santa Barbara County public health official talks about H1N1, this season's dominant flu strain

BY AMY ASMAN

Read a county report about the impact of H1N1 on Santa Barbara in 2009 (.pdf).


As of mid-January, Santa Barbara County had three confirmed cases of the H1N1 strain of influenza, also known as “Swine Flu.”

“Of course, that number only represents the number of confirmed cases based on a small number of laboratory tests done at this time,” Susan Klein-Rothschild, a representative for the Public Health Department, said in an e-mail to the Sun.

Public health officials say this strain of H1N1 is the same, or very similar, to the strain that caused a pandemic in the United States in 2009. In California, there have been 45 confirmed flu-related deaths since the season began in September, and many officials are blaming the abnormally high death toll on the severe symptoms linked to the strain.

Earlier this month, Santa Barbara County saw its first flu-linked death of the season when a woman in her 20s succumbed to complications related to the virus. As of press time, it remained unclear whether she was infected with H1N1.

To find out more about the deadly virus, the Sun contacted Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, an infectious disease physician and deputy health officer for the county.

Fitzgibbons explained that, every year, health-care professionals see a dominant strain of the flu virus that falls into one of two flu-type categories. This year, as in 2009, the dominant virus is flu-type A H1N1. This type of flu is infamous for its severe symptoms, including headache, muscle ache, cough, fever, and gastro-intestinal tract issues. And unlike other strains, which tend to sicken the very young and very old, A H1N1 is infecting older children and adults who are typically healthy.

“[Flu] vaccines are usually targeted toward the young and the old,” Fitzgibbons said, adding that part of the reason why H1N1 is showing up among older children and adults could be “that healthy age group wasn’t getting vaccinated.”

Back in 2009, Fitzgibbons said, H1N1 created uproar because it was a flu strain “not previously recognized in pigs or humans.”

“It was a reassortment—or combination—of prior swine, avian, and human strains,” she said. “Every year, there are subtle changes [to the virus], and sporadically there are larger changes.”

Another reason why H1N1 was so deadly that season is that, because it was a new virus, it wasn’t included in the vaccine being offered to the public. As a result, pharmaceutical companies had to develop batches of the medicine from scratch.

Luckily, Fitzgibbons said, “the vaccine should be a good match for the dominant strain this year” because it’s been used in vaccines since 2009.

She said the county Public Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control “strongly recommend vaccination as the first line of defense against influenza” and that everyone older than six months of age get vaccinated.

“The second line of defense is protecting yourself from people who are infected, and excellent hand hygiene, which involves soap, water, and rubbing your hands for at least 15 seconds,” Fitzgibbons said.

“People should also stay home if they’re sick and cover their mouths and noses when they cough and sneeze,” she added.

However, not everyone is so supportive of the flu vaccine. There are some groups and medical professionals who argue the vaccine isn’t effective enough, especially when people get it on an annual basis.

In February 2013, a medical journal called Clinical Infectious Diseases published a study noting the failure of the flu vaccine in people vaccinated against influenza during the previous year. According to the report, the influenza vaccine was 62-percent effective among people who did not receive a flu shot in the prior year. In comparison, vaccine effectiveness among those who did get a flu shot in the previous year was substantially lower.

Regardless of opposing arguments, Fitzgibbons said she believes everyone who’s of the appropriate age should get immunized.

“I think the vaccine is very important,” she said. “Every year, we see avoidable deaths, and I think the vaccine remains the mainstay of preventing infection.”

 

Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at aasman@santamariasun.com.