Flu bug still biting; Health officials urge immunizations

COVINGTON -- The East Metro Health District is urging residents not to relax their guard against the flu bug. And, if they haven't already done so, they should obtain a vaccination against the H1N1 strain of influenza.

There have been a total of 1,012 H1N1 hospitalizations and 72 influenza-associated deaths in Georgia since April 2009. Children are among the most vulnerable affected by H1N1.

"We are concerned that a significant number of Georgians have not received the H1N1 vaccine and especially children between the ages of 6 months and 9 years of age that should be receiving two doses of the vaccine," said Dr. M. Rony Francois, director of the Georgia Department of Community Health's Division of Public Health at a press conference held Wednesday at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston Hospital. "We are asking all Georgians to remain vigilant about the H1N1 virus and its complications. Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect you and your loved ones from the flu."

Currently, Georgia is one of five states the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists with regional influenza activity. While seasonal flu usually runs from October through May, H1N1 is still circulating and may continue for many months, according to a press release from the DCH. Georgia experienced its first wave last spring and peaked with a second wave in September.

"We aren't 100 percent sure that a third wave is occurring or will occur, but if there is a third wave, it may happen in our sate first," said Dr. Patrick O'Neal, director of DCH's Division of Emergency Preparedness and Response. "What we do know is that residents need to continue taking precautions against the flu and seek vaccination if they haven't been vaccinated."

There have been almost 5,000 vaccines administered through the Newton County Health Department as of March 24, and it is not too late to receive the vaccine, according to East Metro Health District public information officer Suleima Salgado.

"The H1N1 is like the seasonal flu and persons should be immunized yearly," she said. "We have been told that next year's seasonal flu shot will include the H1N1 strain."

Those considered to be high-risk and who are encouraged to seek out the vaccine are those in the following categories:

* Pregnant women;

* Health care and emergency medical personnel with direct patient contact;

* People who live with or care for infants younger than 6 months;

* Anyone from 6 months to 24 years of age;

* Seniors and anyone with underlying medical conditions that put them at risk for flu-related complications.

Salgado said parents should remember that for some children, two doses of the vaccine are required.

"We would like to also remind parents of children 9 years of age and younger that a second dose of H1N1 vaccine is needed in order to provide immunity," she said.

Vaccinations are available at the Newton County Health Department Mondays and Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. No appointments are necessary.

Private physicians and area pharmacies also have a supply of the vaccine.

Newton County School System Director of Public Relations Sherri Viniard said flu prevention efforts continue in all schools.

"One illness can affect an entire school building -- potentially hundreds of people -- so we continually promote 'healthy hygiene habits' in our schools. Prevention is the best defense we have for the flu so it's important to stress the ways our students, their parents and our employees can prevent the spread of illness at home and at school," Viniard said.

Those efforts include sending sick children and staff home and advising them to stay home 24 hours after they no longer have a fever; educating everyone to cough or sneeze in the cuff of their elbow instead of their hands; and clean surfaces that have frequent hand contact such as desks, door knobs and keyboards.

For complete information or to learn more about flu prevention, visit http://health.sate.ga.us/h1n1flu or call 888-4161-4636.