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Seasonal flu vaccination planned for Sept. by the health dept.

WILLMAR -- Local health officials hope that many area residents will be vaccinated against seasonal flu in September.

That will allow them to focus later in the fall on vaccinating high-risk groups against the H1N1 novel influenza, commonly called the swine flu. The previously unknown flu virus showed up in Mexico earlier this year and quickly spread worldwide. The outbreak is now classified as a pandemic.

Kandiyohi County Public Health Director Ann Stehn said she anticipates receiving the vaccine for swine flu in mid-October, but that's not a firm timeline. A vaccine is now being tested to combat the virus.

Stehn and county emergency management staff have been meeting regularly with county health care providers to plan for a possible outbreak in this area.

A group of the planners met Tuesday afternoon to provide an update for the public.

"We don't know how to predict what's going to happen," Stehn said. "We don't know if this is something that will disrupt society ... the practical thing to do is plan." The swine flu has been present in the area throughout the summer.

When swine flu vaccine does arrive, some groups of people will be first in line -- pregnant women, those who care for young babies, people 6 to 24 years of age, health care and emergency workers and adults with underlying health conditions.

For others, the vaccine will be available later. The virus has affected young people more severely. There has been speculation that people born before 1957 may have been exposed to a similar virus and may have some natural resistance.

Several of the group on Tuesday, many of them registered nurses, said that antiviral medications will not be an answer for many people. They are not a cure-all, they have side effects, and they are costly.

Another to thing to remember is that a person on antiviral medication can still spread the virus to other people.

"We really want to encourage people to use common sense first," said Jo DeBruycker of Affiliated Community Medical Centers.

The seasonal flu vaccine, already arriving in the community, is a good place to start. It won't provide direct protection from the swine flu, but catching the seasonal flu could make a person more susceptible to another virus, the providers said.

County Emergency Management Director Don Ericson said businesses should have a crisis plan in place that could be adapted to deal with a flu outbreak. "They should have crisis planning in general," he said. "It could be a flood or a tornado; it could be anything that disrupts their service or staff."

The health care providers have discussed how local providers would handle it if government estimates come true and as much as 30 percent of the county's population catches the flu over a six-week period.

They have plans in place for dealing with high numbers of people seeking medical help and high numbers of hospitalizations.

Ericson suggested that families have their own plan.

The coming season will be a good test of how well people can protect themselves from infection, Stehn said.

The health care providers said the start of school raises risks by bringing large numbers of people together.

Stacey Zondervan of Family Practice Medical Center said it's important for parents to talk with their children about controlling infection. Along with washing their hands, children need to be reminded not to share pop, water or lip balm with their friends and not to chew pencils and share them.

Primary symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, runny nose, body aches and chills. The body aches and high fever generally are not present if a person has a cold.

People with the flu are urged to stay at home and away from others until their temperature has been lower than 100 degrees for 24 hours without the aid of fever-reducing medications.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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