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Attacking Swine Flu Before It Attacks Us

The past few months, this blog and Broward Health have had a strained relationship, to put it mildly; but hey, global pandemics make for strange bed partners. Juice is glad to report that the north county's $1 billion public hospital district will not be caught by surprise by swine flu (sorry, pork producers, but it's more fun to say than "H1N1"). I spoke yesterday with Jeanne Eckes, the district's director of emergency preparedness.

Of course, it's too late to stop the swine flu, so the focus has shifted toward containment. "Pandemics occur every 30 to 40 years, so we're due," says Eckes. "Now it's a question of severity. We think with H1N1, it's going to be like the 1957 pandemic, which was mild and manageable, as opposed to the 1918 Spanish flu."

Well, yes. You know, considering that 1918 flu may have killed 100 million people.

Typically, says Eckes, children and the elderly are the most vulnerable to life-threatening infection, but researchers have found that many of the elderly were vaccinated against that Spanish flu, which is a similar strain to the swine flu, and appear to still have immunity. So the closest attention will be paid to the youngsters.

Already, Broward County schools have been stressing the importance of kids washing their hands and reminding them to cough into their sleeves.

The message for adults is equally obvious -- and equally necessary: "If you're sick, we recommend you stay home from work," says Eckes. "Honestly, we're a society that doesn't promote that as well as we should."

And in this stagnant economy, it might be even harder to convince people anxious about layoffs to stay home from work.

The first vaccine is due to arrive in Broward County next month -- some 300,000 shots, and priority goes to children, pregnant women, and people with preexisting medical conditions that make them more susceptible to a vicious bout with the flu. People will have to get a second shot about 20 days later, says Eckes, unless ongoing clinical trials demonstrate that the one shot will do the job.

In the event these preventive measures aren't enough, the district has mutual-aid agreements with other hospitals and health-care providers in the region to send doctors or supplies to an area that sees a "patient surge." After Wilma and other hurricanes, the hospital has learned to stock up on supplies and to have vendors ready to bring reinforcements if they're needed. The district also hatched a series of contingency plans, like how to maintain treatment to patients even if 30 percent of hospital staff are missing because they're sick or caring for family.

A final note that Eckes asked us to emphasize: The swine flu shot is not the same as the seasonal flu vaccine. You'll need to get that too. This will be the winter you finally get over your fear of needles.

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Thomas Francis

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