Health department offers advice to avoid the flu

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 29, 2008

DEMOPOLIS &8212; As the flu season rages on, many people are looking for ways to avoid potentially complicated health issues associated with new strains of the virus. Complicating the issue is the advice of experts, who say a pandemic flu outbreak is not too far off in the future.

Stacey Adams with the Alabama Department of Health came to Demopolis Thursday to speak to a group of residents at Southern Oaks assisted living facility about ways to prevent getting the flu and for being prepared for a pandemic flu outbreak.

According to Adams, there have been at least three pandemic flu outbreaks in the 20th century, and experts are predicting the nation is due for another outbreak.

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This kind of flu, Adams said, should not be confused with seasonal flu or Asian bird flu. This outbreak could potentially affect a large portion of the population, leading to significantly increased absenteeism, health complications and even death for some individuals.

But there are ways to plan and prepare for such an event. Just a few of the tidbits Adams shared include: routine hand washing and sanitizing of frequently touched items, stocking up on important items like water and non-perishable food in the event of a pandemic and getting annual flu shots.

The flu vaccine must be reformulated every year to keep up with the fast-evolving influenza virus, and this year the government made a rare wrong bet on which strains would cause the most disease.

This year the flu season got off to a slow start, but it rocketed in mid-January because of some new strains that are sickening even people who got vaccinated. It seems the vaccine is a good match for only about 40 percent of the virus now spreading in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration brought together flu specialists for the annual rite of predicting what strains are most likely to strike next winter.

On the agenda: A complete overhaul, brewing next year&8217;s vaccine to protect against three strains not in this year&8217;s inoculation but that are circulating the globe now. They include a strain called Brisbane/10 that&8217;s responsible for much of the current U.S. misery &8212; one first spotted in Australia late last February, too late for scientists to include in this year&8217;s vaccine recipe even if they had predicted it would gain steam.

What virus strains to include in the vaccine is a decision made months in advance to give manufacturers time to brew more than 100 million doses before the next fall, a time crunch that makes keeping a step ahead of influenza difficult.

Still, the nation has a pretty good track record: 16 of the last 19 flu seasons had well-matched vaccines.

The last time the vaccine didn&8217;t provide enough protection was in the 2003-04 season, when the Fujian flu emerged in Asia too late to be included in the vaccine formula. Even then, when researchers analyzed who got sick, the less-than-perfect vaccine worked about 52 percent of the time for healthy adults. Usually, it&8217;s about 70 percent to 90 percent effective.

The CDC says it&8217;s still a good idea for the vulnerable to get vaccinated this year. Because Brisbane/10 is a relative of a strain in the vaccine, the shot should offer some protection, perhaps meaning a milder case, Cox said.

Flu viruses come in different strains that constantly mutate, until one that few people have immunity against emerges and is able to spread widely. Each year&8217;s vaccine contains protection against two varieties of the harsher Type A flu &8212; subtypes known as H1N1 and H3N2 &8212; and one from the more benign Type B family.

This year, two vaccine components turned out not to be a good match. That troublesome Brisbane/10 strain is different enough from the vaccine&8217;s H3N2 version, named Wisconsin, that it now accounts for most of the nation&8217;s laboratory-confirmed flu. A different Type B strain is causing illness, too.

It&8217;s too early to tell if this winter&8217;s flu will be more deadly than usual. Every year the flu infects up to 20 percent of the population, hospitalizes 200,000 people and kills 36,000.

Last week, the World Health Organization made its own recommendation for the recipe for the Northern Hemisphere&8217;s flu vaccine for next year, three strains that weren&8217;t in this year&8217;s shot: H3N2/Brisbane/10; another new Type A strain called H1N1/Brisbane/59; and Type B/Florida.

The U.S. always follows the health organization&8217;s lead.

But Thursday&8217;s meeting allows the FDA&8217;s scientific advisers to scrutinize the data before the U.S. officially accepts that recipe and manufacturers start the laborious process of growing virus in chicken eggs to brew into vaccine.

Associated Press medical writer Lauren Neerguard contributed to this report.