The initial outbreak of H1N1 (also known as swine flu) in the spring, first in Mexico, and then in the United States, has provided some lessons on what will be needed when the flu virus returns this fall. Based on patterns seen in past flu outbreaks, health-care professionals and government officials expect a more widespread outbreak of H1N1. They are preparing for this by educating the public, providing for extensive vaccinations, and planning strategies to handle workplace and school outbreaks.
A report by the non-profit group Trust for America’s Health projects that in the case of a severe pandemic more than 2.5 million New Jersey residents could get sick, and tens of thousands might die. The report, which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, maintains that “providing clear, straightforward information to the public [is] essential for allaying fears and building trust.”
|Dr. Mitchell Rubin will provide up-to-date information about H1N1 during a session at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.|
The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly will sponsor an information session on Tuesday, Oct. 13, at 10:30 a.m., giving a free community update on H1N1 and other contagious diseases. The event, targeting parents as well as seniors, features medical expert Dr. Mitchell Rubin, who is professor of preventive medicine and pediatrics at Stony Brook University School of Medicine and senior lecturer at the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University.
“The story is unfolding as we speak,” said Rubin. “We don’t know the repercussions yet.”
The 1918 flu epidemic that resulted in millions of deaths worldwide was caused by an H1N1 form of the flu, as have other outbreaks and epidemics in past years. Rubin explained that the 2009 H1N1 flu virus may be a descendant of those other forms of flu virus that caused outbreaks and epidemics in the past.
However, Rubin emphasized, “It’s an absolutely new strain.”
Rubin reported that seasonal flu can affect about 5 to 20 percent of the population. “Many predict that with this new H1N1 strain, this percentage may swell to nearly 50 percent,” he noted.That could translate into 3 million to 4 million flu victims in New Jersey, and more than 100 million throughout the United States.
Some reports claim that people born before 1957 may harbor some immunity to this virus, as there is natural protection to those who were exposed to older strains that were similar to H1N1. And at this point individuals over 64 years of age are not considered a high-risk group for H1N1, as contrasted with seasonal flu, which poses a serious risk to older people. However, Rubin maintains, “It’s not known who’s protected…. I don’t think anybody’s safe.” He plans to address these and other infectious disease issues at the Oct. 13 event.
Some have voiced concern over the safety of the vaccine itself and over the potential risks of a massive vaccination program. During a 1976 vaccination program for a different strain of swine flu, there were reports of side effects that occurred after vaccination, including some cases of a neurologic condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome, and a handful of deaths. Most scientists believed that the cases of Guillain-Barre as well as the deaths were unrelated to vaccination, but the reports did negatively influence public opinion about mass vaccination.
“The issues of safety are being addressed by authorities,” said Rubin. “From what we know, it seems to be a safe vaccine.” Rubin emphasized the importance of scientific tracking of the disease and the vaccination program. “My feeling is evidence-based medicine is the only medicine,” he said.
Rubin is also encouraging people not to be alarmed by the prospect of this strain of flu. “The groups most at risk so far in terms of what is known [about H1N1] are immune-compromised people,” he said, referring to patients whose immune systems may be weakened because of other health issues. Past experience with H1N1 has shown that for most people who do get sick, the disease will run its course and they will fully recover.
He does recommend vaccination, and for many that would mean getting both the seasonal flu vaccine as well as the new H1N1 vaccine, due to be released in the next few weeks. “There is no problem giving both vaccines simultaneously,” said Rubin.
Rubin, 57, who was raised, received his M.D. degree, and maintained a private medical practice in New Jersey for many years, is now a New York City resident. In addition to his academic appointments, Rubin is a patient advocate, and runs a consulting firm called Doctor in Your Family (www.doctorinyourfamily.com) whose goal is to guide patients facing serious medical issues through the often confusing maze of health care services, specialists, and insurance issues.
The flu information update at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades will be followed by a flu shot clinic, sponsored by Walgreens, from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the JCC front lobby. The seasonal flu vaccine will be available and administered by Walgreens pharmacists.
The report from Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) can be found at www.healthyamericans.org.
For more information about the Oct. 13 event, call Linda Berkowitz at (201) 408-1479, or e-mail her at email@example.com.