Dec. 3, 2007 — It's not too late to plan for flu season. If you have not yet visited a doctor's office or health clinic for a dose of flu vaccine, there is still time to do so. Flu season has begun, but its peak usually occurs later in the winter and sometimes well into spring. Now is the time to get protection, according to Dr. Jim Turner, executive director of the University of Virginia's Department of Student Health.
"There is plenty of influenza vaccine available, and we strongly recommend that people visit their family doctor," he said. "The key to staying healthy throughout the flu season is vaccination and good hygiene."
Each November, the University offers free vaccinations to employees and students. Though that opportunity has passed, people with insurance can be vaccinated by their personal health-care providers, usually for a small co-payment.
Turner also recommends frequent hand washing to decrease the risk of flu transmission. He suggests keeping bottles of alcohol-based hand cleanser at your workplace and home.
"We encourage sneeze and cough hygiene – covering your nose and mouth, using tissues and throwing them away, and washing your hands after coughing or sneezing."
And if you think you have the flu, stay home until at least 24 hours after your fever has gone away, Turner said. "If we all make sure to not expose our colleagues to the flu when we have it, it will make for a less severe season," he emphasized.
Turner serves as the medical advisor on a University-wide pandemic flu planning committee, chaired by Marjorie Sidebottom, director of the University's Office of Emergency Preparedness. That committee is charged with ensuring that the University is prepared to successfully manage a major outbreak of influenza.
Sidebottom and Turner met this week with University deans and senior administrators to discuss emergency planning in the event of a flu pandemic. The University is coordinating efforts with the city of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District and the state.
The Pandemic Planning Committee, comprised of administrators from across Grounds, has met periodically since June 2006. They will revise their plan as needed based on state and federal guidelines and are in contact with officials at other universities, sharing information and suggestions on how to manage a public health crisis.
Universities are particularly vulnerable to high infection rates because of the regular close contact between students in classrooms and residence halls and the high rate of international travel by faculty, administrators and students, Turner noted.
"There's some good news regarding pandemic flu," Turner said. "There is no evidence of wild or domestic bird flu so far in North America. We had been concerned because of interlacing international migratory paths that avian flu would soon enter North America. That has not occurred so far."
Avian flu, while highly lethal to humans, is rare. About 350 human cases have been reported internationally, primarily in Vietnam and Indonesia.
"Nearly two-thirds of infected people there have died from it," Turner said, "but the cases seem to be limited to people with direct contact with infected poultry or with a family member who had direct and extensive contact with an individual with avian flu."
Internationally, the vaccine infrastructure has improved dramatically due to efforts by the U.S. government and the World Health Organization, Turner said.
"We're anticipating that in the next three to four years there will be a dramatic increase in the capability of the vaccine industry to manufacture both seasonal flu vaccine and pandemic flu vaccine," he said. "The Centers for Disease Control has estimated that vaccine production capability will grow from 130 million doses this year to 4.5 billion doses in 2010, enough for nearly every person on the planet."
Pandemic and Seasonal Flu
A pandemic is a worldwide disease outbreak. A flu pandemic occurs when a new flu (Influenza A) virus appears for which people have little or no immunity, and for which there is no vaccine. The disease spreads easily from person to person by coughing and sneezing. It causes serious illness.
Pandemic flu is different from the seasonal flu that people usually get in the colder months. Seasonal flu is a respiratory illness that can be spread person-to-person. Most people have some immunity, and a vaccine is available.
Pandemic flu could affect your normal day-to-day life. Businesses, stores and other services may need to limit their operations. Schools and child-care centers may need to close.
You can prepare for pandemic flu now:
• By visiting www.virginia.edu/pandemic.
• Store a two-week supply of water and food.
• Ask your doctor to prescribe an extra supply of your regular prescription drugs.
• Keep a supply of over-the-counter medicines (pain relievers, stomach remedies, cough and cold medicines) that you might need.
• Wash your hands often and teach your children to do the same.
• Cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze. Teach your children to do the
same. Wash hands after you throw away tissues.
• Stay home when you are sick.
• Keep sick children home from school and child care.
• Talk with family members, loved ones and neighbors about what to do if they get sick.
For information, visit the following Web sites:
• World Health Organization: www.who.int/csr/disease/influenza/pandemic10things/en/
• Health and Human Services: www.pandemicflu.gov/plan/individual/index.htm