Editorial: Guarding against flu complacency

  • Updated: June 17, 2009 - 8:43 PM

Public must remain vigilant as flu outbreak unfolds.

The news was inevitable but still heartwrenching. Early this week, Minnesota health officials announced the state's first death linked to the novel H1N1 influenza virus, sometimes called swine flu. The victim was a little girl from Minneapolis, a 5-year-old preschooler with special needs described by her mother as a "joyful, amazing gift.'' She was born with health complications that put her at high risk of flu complications. Her loss is a tragic reminder that influenza of all types can be fatal for those with underlying health problems -- and that a new and little-understood flu strain is still infecting people in Minnesota and across the nation.

There's been a definite tendency since swine flu news reports first broke in April for the public to let down its guard against this new flu, even as health officials continued working at high alert. The latest on the disease no longer dominates media reports; the recent classification of the outbreak as a global pandemic merited minimal airtime. And with initial information indicating that many reported illnesses have been mild, there's been a palpable shift in public attitudes from panic to complacency.

That's a sobering development given that public preparedness -- from good hygiene to getting flu shots this fall -- is absolutely critical in containing this emerging disease threat. There's still too much unknown about this new flu. The public, and parents in particular, must stay vigilant.

Health officials are continuing to monitor and study the strain that originated in Mexico and has sickened people all over the world. What is clear so far is that it's easily transmissible, is continuing to spread, and is hitting children and young adults hard. So far, 17,855 cases and 44 deaths have been reported nationally. There have been 302 cases confirmed in Minnesota, likely a fraction of the true number of illnesses in the state. Some hospitals specializing in treating children have reported spikes recently in emergency room patients with flulike symptoms. The median age of Minnesotans with confirmed cases of the new flu: 13. The median age for confirmed flu cases resulting in hospitalization in the state: 9.

The good news is that a vaccine against the novel flu strain is in development and may be available later this year. Health officials are weighing whether to go ahead with mass vaccinations and, if so, how a limited supply of vaccine would be distributed. This week, Kathleen Sebelius, the new federal Health and Human Services secretary, argued for making schoolchildren a top priority.

Would parents get the H1N1 shot for their children if it's available? Would others who need it -- health care workers, those with underlying health conditions -- get vaccinated, too? It's an interesting but troubling question. Given the current complacency about H1N1, there may be a temptation not to get the shot. Or to forgo the annual immunizations that protect against seasonal flu strains that kill thousands each year. That would be a grave mistake. Health experts fear that the new flu strain could mix with the seasonal strains to produce something new and even more dangerous. That's why maximizing the number of people protected against the seasonal strains is even more important this fall.

Health officials are to be commended so far for their leadership in the unfolding H1N1 outbreak. But their best ally in the fight against influenza is an informed public. It's responsible decisions made each day in homes, schools and offices -- good handwashing, staying home if ill, moving quickly to get flu shots -- that ultimately will make the difference against this new health threat.

  • UNPREDICTABLE VIRUS

    "The point I always make is that if you've seen one outbreak, you've seen one outbreak. It can turn on a dime.''

    Mayo Clinic infectious disease expert Dr. Gregory Poland, talking about influenza outbreaks' unpredictability

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