County Puts Swine Flu and “Regular” Flu on Watch

PETERS-pic for September 10 (Thummer, mascot of L A Cty Fair)The H1N1 virus, the “swine flu” has resulted in the issuance of notices from state and county health officials declaring a watchful eye will be necessary against an outbreak of that virus but also warns that regular flu could be just as dangerous this coming season.  In spite of a radio report by NPR that pigs at county fairs across the country could be endangered by contact with humans who may be infected with the H1N1 virus, Los Angeles County Fair officials appear not to be concerned.  They say its decades old pig races and its popular pig patio will continue in full force during the current run of the fair in Pomona which opened Sept. 5. 

The State of California in its report states that the H1N1 virus level has been downgraded to “regional” by the California Department of Public Health.  But state and county officials remain on guard and say they will continue monitoring any outbreaks of this flu but also say they remain cautious about the “regular” flu season.  A regional outbreak is defined by the department as one in which less than half the state is affected.  

Late last week, Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, Director of Public Health and Health Officer for Los Angeles County released three documents between Aug. 19 and Aug. 28 which included a message to the public that the department remains vigilant; a message to county school administrators that offers guidelines for flu containment; and a policy statement that leaves school closures in the hands of local district administrators. 

Dr. Mark B. Horton, Director of the California Department of Public Health also issued a letter on Aug. 25 that while warning of the upcoming season’s flu dangers, including the H1N1 flu, offers an update on the California Influenza Surveillance Project which tracks data from hospitals in California on the H1N1 virus.

Fielding, in his message says that although the word “pandemic” is associated with the H1N1 virus, it only expresses its worldwide distribution.  “Keep in mind,” he says, “that the word “pandemic” does not mean that the symptoms of this flu virus are more severe, only that H1N1 is widespread around the world.”  Fielding notes that the H1N1 vaccine, now expected to be available in mid-October, should be administered to pregnant women, those who live with or care for children younger than six months, those between the ages of six months and 24 years, and others who may suffer chronic disorders. 

Guidelines to county school administrators issued by Dr. Fielding notes that “to date, illness from pandemic H1N1 flu has been mostly mild; the vast majority of cases have gotten better without the need to see a doctor or receive special treatment.”  Reporting information is provided to all schools along with hints in keeping school children healthy.  Dr. Fielding specifically states that masks are not helpful and may be harmful.  The county department of health, the report says, “does not recommend masks for public use to prevent getting the flu.”  Fielding explains that masks have never been proven to prevent flu…and because people tend to rub their face with the use of a mask, it might actually contribute to infection.

Horton, in his “Dear Concerned Californian” letter, reminds us that the fall flu season is approaching.  “This year, we know it will be different,” he writes.  In anticipating perhaps a widespread outbreak, Horton advises the public to plan for illnesses and to be prepared with supplies.  He recommends that alternative plans for health-care and day-care should be considered and the possibility of school closures.  At the same time, his message addresses the need for basic preventative steps such as frequent hand-washing, covering sneezes and keeping the ill away from public functions.  “Individuals must stay home when they are sick and take care not to spread their illness in the workplace, school, or community,” Horton says.

The Los Angeles County Fair plans to continue its traditional Barnyard Racers Pig Races and Pig Patio among its 17 events held in its various animal exhibits which includes Thummer’s Entertainment Barn.  Responding to an NPR story that reported closure of some of the pig pens at county fairs around the nation due to a concern that the pigs might contract swine flu from humans, a spokeswoman at the fair assured that staff will be working with the animals everyday and generally keeping an eye on things to be sure that the animals remain healthy. 

The public’s health and safety also receives a high priority in L A County Fair’s planning, she said.

“We have always had hand-washing stations at the animal exhibits and encourage everyone to wash their hands both before and after handling any of the animals,” she said.  “This year we have also added hand-washing stations throughout the fairgrounds, typically around food services.  These stations have been provided by Pomona Valley Hospital.”

The National Public Radio story, which also appeared in the New York Times, quoted Dr. John Clifford, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief veterinarian as saying the risk to animals may increase in the coming months.  “We would anticipate that if wee see the emergence of this [the flu] again this fall, which is being anticipated, that you’re increasing the likelihood that we’re going to find it in pigs.” 

The H1N1 flu is now in its 33rd week.  To date, 35 deaths due to what is termed novel H1N1 has been reported in Los Angeles County, according to an Influenza Watch report issued on Aug. 31.  The report said that the week of July 12 to July 18 saw the peak number of admissions to ICU or resulted in death, but points out that many of these incidents, both admissions for care and where death resulted, were complicated by other more serious illnesses not connected to flu.

Statewide, the California Influenza Surveillance Project reported 128 deaths from people who were tested positive for the H1N1 so far in 2009, although those who died may have suffered additional health problems.  Los Angeles County reported 154 incidences in which patients have been hospitalized and found to test positive for the H1N1 virus.  There have been 20 deaths in the county in the reporting period, April 3 through August 25. 
Other type of flu, referred to as “regular” flu, remains at low levels throughout Southern California.  Regular flu vaccine is now available and the pandemic H1N1 flu vaccine may be available in Los Angeles County by mid-October.

By Bill Peters

September 10, 2009

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