Schools, health authority working to stay ahead of flu 

H1N1 vaccine expected in November

A vaccine is on the way for the H1N1 flu virus, also known as the swine flu, and large quantities will likely be available in the province as early as November.

In the meantime health authorities are monitoring the flu closely while working to keep it in the public eye to guard against an outbreak at the start of cold and flu season.

Since Aug. 4, 42 new cases of H1N1 have been confirmed in B.C., including 15 in the Vancouver Coastal Health authority's district. There have been four reported deaths since July 13 out of a total of 676 laboratory confirmed cases, but in all cases there was an underlying medical condition. While symptoms are generally mild for most patients, even when compared to other flu strains, H1N1 can trigger severe respiratory viruses.

With a few weeks to go before the start of another school year, school districts across the province are already planning their response.

"One of the things that's happening is that on Thursday, Aug. 27 there's a conference call with all of the other superintendents in B.C. on the topic of H1N1 with the provincial medical health officer," said Dr. Rick Erickson, superintendent for the Sea to Sky School District. "Once the kids are at school we'll emphasize washing hands, covering faces when sneezing, that kind of thing."

Dr. Erickson has also been told to expect a plan of action from the Ministry of Education by the end of the month that will outline steps that schools should take if a case of H1N1 is suspected or confirmed at a school. He says all levels of government and administration are taking the pandemic seriously.

"We've heard a lot about the echo effect, where a virus starts one year and the next year you really have to watch out because it comes back," said Dr. Erickson, who added that extra caution is in order until the vaccine is available. He has not heard whether the vaccine will be administered to students within schools, but says that is something that has happened in the past.

Dr. John Carsley, a medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, says a vaccine should be available in November.

"Basically our approach is to have our regular flu vaccine available, which usually arrives at the beginning of October and we'll be giving that to the people it's usually recommended for, like the elderly and people with chronic health problems. If all goes well we should be awash with a vaccine for H1N1... if everything goes according to plan in mid-November," he said.

The vaccine is still being tested before going into production, but the early tests are quite promising. The vaccine won't make a person immune to the illness but will protect against the current strain of the flu for roughly six months - enough to get through cold and flu season.

The province is still working out a program for administering the vaccine, but Dr. Carsley says there will be enough for everyone.

"Once it's released we will be getting lots and lots of doses, it's really just a question of who we should start with," he said. "We're looking at what's happening with the virus in the southern hemisphere during their flu season, collecting information from Australia, New Zealand, Chile, etcetera, to see who is at the highest risk for complications from the flu. By the time the fall comes we should have a better idea of who should get priority for the vaccine."

That could include school age children. Seniors, who are typically the most susceptible to flu, seem to be resistant to H1N1 after developing immunity from an earlier outbreak. People in their late 50s have lived through another outbreak prior to 1957.

"It's kind of the opposite of what we usually see... it's certainly different than normal," said Dr. Carsley. "We clearly want to make sure we still offer the regular vaccine to seniors every year, and H1N1 will be available to them as well though it may not be as high a priority as people with respiratory conditions, for instance."

Generally speaking, H1N1 is a mild flu for most people. Of the 676 cases confirmed in the province less than 40 have resulted in hospitalization and 17 were admitted to intensive care.

To date there are no restrictions on travel, and there is no impact expected on the 2010 Olympic Games. According to the Vancouver Organizing Committee they are working with Vancouver Coastal Health on the issue, and are following their advice. At this point that means promoting awareness of hand washing, covering your face if you sneeze or cough, and staying home if you're ill.

Globally, the H1N1 is still considered to be a pandemic, although the World Health Organization lists the risk as moderate. Most people are recovering from infections without the need for hospitalization and medical care.

While four deaths rates as serious, between 400 and 800 British Columbians die each year as the result of seasonal flu and pneumonia.

Swine flu is typically found in pigs, but H1N1 is a new strain of virus that's capable of producing flu and viral pneumonia in people. Symptoms include fever, cough, headache, aches and fatigue. Some have also reported runny nose, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

It can spread through the air after coughing or sneezing, or through physical contact with objects like doorknobs. Frequent hand washing with regular soap can help prevent the transfer of the disease.

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