Swine flu is back in the news, especially since the World Health Organization bumped the pandemic level to level six, which is the highest level, on June 11. This is the first official pandemic in 41 years. However, Missouri health officials were not surprised by the announcement.
According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, the state's health officials are preparing for the next flu season.
The new flu strain has spread to 74 countries and infected about 29,000 people.
"This declaration was merely the confirmation of what public health officials already knew: The new H1N1 virus can move from person-to-person and has now spread throughout the world," Margaret Donnelly, director of MDHSS, said. "Fortunately, this flu has been no more severe than the common seasonal flu that we face each year."
According to MDHSS, "The seasonal flu caused 11,137 illnesses in Missouri from October through May, compared with an average of about 15,000 cases each year. In contrast, the H1N1 virus has been confirmed in only 50 cases in Missouri and nearly all have produced mild symptoms. But, the virus has been linked to at least 27 deaths nationwide, including one in Missouri."
The goal for Missouri health officials since the virus entered Missouri in April has been to restrict its spread. However, the H1N1 virus is expanding to the southern hemisphere, where their flu season has just begun. "In Australia and Chile, health officials have found that the new virus is becoming the dominant type of flu, crowding out more traditional viruses," according to MDHSS.
This development of the swine flu in the southern hemisphere is what health officials are using to determine what next flu season will possibly be like in North America. Oct. 1 is when flu season begins in the U.S., which is why over the summer, Missouri's state and local health departments are preparing ahead for upcoming flu season to deal with outbreaks of the new flu strain.
Donnelly said the decision by the WHO to declare a pandemic did not cause health officials to change their strategy in dealing with the virus. The declaration was based on current WHO standards, which consider only the geographic spread of the H1N1 virus, not any change in the severity of the illness it causes. The declaration was official recognition that the virus has now been confirmed in more than 70 countries and can be assumed to exist worldwide, she said.
"No matter what the World Health Organization calls this, Missouri health officials have been taking aggressive steps to protect the health of our residents," Donnelly said. "At this point, we have no reason to believe that this virus is more dangerous than the seasonal flu. But we need to be prepared in case it does become a more significant problem."
Anti-viral medication was distributed throughout Missouri's local health departments in May. There was enough of the medication to treat about 600,000 cases of flu.
"Health care providers will be alerted to be on the lookout for flu-like illness," according to MDHSS. "Federal officials are working with pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine against this new strain of flu."
A Switzerland pharmaceutical company, Novartis AG, announce June 12 that it has made the first batch of a swine flu vaccine for pre-clinical evaluation and testing. WHO expects pharmaceutical companies to have a swine flu vaccine approved and ready for sale by in the fall, right before the flu season in North America arrives.
Health officials advise people to protect themselves and others from the virus by following good hygiene by covering the nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, washing hands with soap and water, especially after coughing and avoiding touching eyes, nose, mouth and close contact with sick people. They also advise those who are sick with the flu to stay home from work or school to keep from spreading the disease to others.
"We learn more about this virus and its impact on human health every day," Donnelly said. "As we learn, we will adjust our response and inform the public. In short, we will do all we can to make this outbreak less severe."