This year, we are looking at the prospect of essentially two flu seasons in one, with the burden of both seasonal influenza and novel H1N1 influenza, swine flu. Maine public health authorities are acting to limit the spread of influenza via a range of strategies, including sponsorship of a school-based vaccination program.
Pen Bay Healthcare, Penobscot Bay Medical Center and I support this important initiative. In the average flu season, more than 35,000 American deaths are attributable to flu, with an estimated 200,000 flu-related hospitalizations. In addition to older adults and those with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women are at in-creased risk for severe complications of flu.
Although influenza deaths in children are rare, they occur every year. Flu is also responsible for many lost days at school for children and lost days of work for their caregivers. As every parent knows, a sick child often means illness for the rest of the family is not far behind. Covering coughs and diligent hand-washing can help prevent the spread of flu.
Although H1N1 has not yet been found to cause more serious illness than other flu strains, it is having a major impact among children and younger adults. So far, more than 60 percent of Maine H1N1 cases have been in individuals younger than 25 years old.
Vaccination is the most powerful tool available to prevent influenza. The Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends annual seasonal influenza vaccination for adults older than 50, pregnant women, caregivers of infants younger than 6 months, other adults with certain chronic medical conditions, health care workers and, new this year, all children age 6 months to 18 years.
H1N1 vaccination is recommended for all individuals age 6 months to 24 years, pregnant women, caregivers of infants younger than 6 months, health care workers and adults age 25 to 64 with certain chronic medical conditions.
Over the next several weeks, school districts throughout Maine will be offering seasonal flu vaccinations. H1N1 vaccinations will be offered to Maine students in October or November, once it is available.
We anticipate that younger children will be vaccinated in physicians’ offices or at other community-based sites. Older children attending private school or who are home-schooled may be vaccinated either at those same venues or potentially though the public school-sponsored clinics.
Staff at Pen Bay Healthcare are working with area schools on logistics, vaccine storage, educational materials and staffing for vaccination clinics. We hope that parents will embrace the opportunity to protect students and the greater community by choosing to immunize their children against both seasonal flu and H1N1.
As this flu season progresses, I recommend checking the following resources for the most up-to-date information: flu.gov and maine.gov/dhhs/boh/maineflu/. Also, pbmc.org/flu will provide you links to those sites and additional local information.
As an infectious disease physician and as a mother of 1-year-old and 4-year-old sons, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of prevention via vaccination. Both of my children are being vaccinated for seasonal flu this month and will receive H1N1 vaccines later this fall. As a health care professional, I am vaccinated against seasonal flu every year and anticipate H1N1 vaccination as well this year.
Cheryl Liechty is an infectious disease specialist at Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport.