Is SWLA ready for flu season?

By Britney Glaser - bio | email

LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - The big outbreaks of the H1N1 virus in the southern hemisphere this year warn of what could happen here when our flu season returns. A vaccine is the answer, but it's not yet an option.  In this Healthcast, we find out where Southwest Louisiana stands in the race to stay protected against this potentially deadly virus.

The last thing you'd expect us to be reporting on in the dead heat of summer is the flu. But this particular strain has already hit more than a million Americans and that's what has infectious disease physicians like Dr. Carlos Choucino on guard.  "With this new strain, we are not certain about it," says Dr. Choucino on staff with Lake Charles Memorial and Moss Regional Hospitals, "it seems not to be as bad as the seasonal flu is, but it hasn't had enough time to be spreading among humans."

From what we've seen since the first confirmed H1N1 case in America back in April, 5,500 people have been hospitalized with the virus and 353 people have died as a result of flu complications.  With the virus now at pandemic level in 70 countries, a race is on to produce a vaccine.  "Just manufacturing the vaccine takes about three months," says Dr. Choucino, "but before you do that you have to isolate the virus, you have to be sure that the virus is able to be replicated so you can make vaccines of it, then you have to prove that it's not dangerous for people to get the vaccine."

There are serious production problems as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned.  "We will not have a vaccine available before the school year starts," Napolitano said in a press conference last week.

That's why the Centers for Disease Control has released a priority list of who will get the vaccine first when it is available.  Here's the breakdown:

1) Pregnant women
2) Household contacts and caregivers for children younger than six months, because infants can die from the virus
3) Healthcare workers
4) People ages six months through 24 years
5) Adults 24 to 64 with underlying health conditions

Dr. Choucino says, "It's very important to know the benefits and what the possible complications of the vaccine are, because vaccinations are the best public health tool that we do have in order to control the infections."

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the effectiveness of the new vaccine, it will probably come in two doses and that's being recommended in addition to the seasonal flu shot. Some 120 million swine flu vaccine doses should be available by October.  But be ready for a big outbreak as kids head back to school in the next month.

Click here for weekly updates on the H1N1 virus.

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