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Public health officials: Get your H1N1 flu vaccines this fall

As the H1N1 virus flu virus spreads in many communities, public health officials are continuing to press the importance of prevention — particularly, being immunized against this new virus.

“The benefit of the vaccine will be great,” said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, the chief of Communicable Diseases and Immunology at Public Health — Seattle & King County.

Unlike the seasonal flu vaccine, which is widely available on- and off-Island now, the vaccine for the H1N1 flu will not be available until October, and there will be conditions on who can be vaccinated first.

On Vashon, the main clinics — Vashon Family Practice, Vashon Health Center, Vashon Plaza Medical Clinic, Chad Magnuson Family Medicine and Vashon Natural Medicine — are planning on carrying the vaccine.

Public Health-Seattle & King County will distribute the vaccine in this area, Duchin said, and while it is likely all of the Island clinics that want the vaccine will get it, he is not certain yet that they all will receive it. It must be distributed in a way to ensure that the people in the priority groups have access to it first.

The groups to be vaccinated initially are those who are the most vulnerable to the H1N1 virus:

• Pregnant women

• Children and young adults 6 months to 24 years of age

• People ages 25 to 64 years old with health conditions that could make them dangerously ill from the flu

• Household members and caregivers of children younger than 6 months, and

• Health care workers and emergency medical service providers.

Notably absent from this list is people 65 and over, who are encouraged each year to get seasonal flu vaccine.

But H1N1is different.

“People over 65 are at the lowest risk of getting this virus,” Duchin said.

He noted that more vaccine will be available to communities each week, and once all those in the five priortity groups who want to be vaccinated are, there will be enough vaccine for everyone, no matter their risk level.

Duchin added it is difficult to know how long it will take to get to that point, since no one knows what the demand for the vaccine will be. Estimates are that there are 42 million people in the United States slated for a priority vaccine.

One dose of the vaccine is being recommended for people ages 10 and up, and two doses, at least three weeks apart, are recommended for children 6 months to 9 years. The vaccine is free, though clinics will likely add a small fee to cover the adminstration of the shots.

Noting that Vashon is a community that has a high rate of children who are not immunized, he stressed the public should feel confident about the safety of the vaccine. It is made the same way that the seasonal flu vaccine is and would have been added to this year’s vaccine if there had been more time. The vaccine has been studied for safety, he said, and there are multiple systems in place to help officials quickly spot any side effects.

On the Island, Dr. Chad Magnuson weighed in on the safety issue recently, encouraging people to consider the H1N1 vaccine seriously and be certain of their facts.

“I really want people to make their decision and know that their biases may get in the way of good care,” he said.

He plans to be vaccinated in the first round, saying as a health care provider it is “ethically incumbent” upon him to do so, noting a recent study that showed in hospitals where higher numbers of staff are vaccinated against the flu, patients develop fewer flu-related complications.

Thimerosol, a much-debated vaccine preservative that contains mercury, is in some of the H1N1 vaccines, but not all, and is never in flu mist, which is sprayed in the nose and contains a live weakened virus, according to Duchin. It can be given to people ages 2 to 49, who are healthy. Health care providers will know if their H1N1 vaccines contain thimerosol, and concerned patients should ask about the ingredients, Duchin said.

Many people with concerns about conventional mediciine seek alternatives, including naturopathy.

At Vashon Natural Medicine, naturopathic physician Kelly Wright plans to carry the H1N1 vaccine, though she does not routinely carry the seasonal flu vaccine.

“The choice to get the seasonal flu vaccine or the H1N1 vaccine is a decision that needs to be made in conjunction with an individual’s health care providers,” she said. “My general advice: Wash your hands, cover your sneezes, get plenty of rest, eat a balanced whole foods/low sugar diet, make sure you have adequate levels of vitamin D, and stay home if you are sick. And always call your physician if you have questions.”

Focusing on prevention is particularly important, Duchin noted, because people can be contagious when they do not realize they are sick. They can spread virus before they get a fever as well as after it is gone, he said, stressing that close contact with people carries risks, especially with H1N1 cases on the rise.

“We’re beginning to see increases in flu-like illnesses,” he said. “In a couple of weeks, we’re expecting significant levels in the community.”

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