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H1N1 down – but definitely not out – this flu season

A state health official says that the worst of H1N1 passed last flu season, but don't put away the hand sanitizer just yet.

"We expect H1N1 to be back again this year because that's what happens when we have pandemics," said Dr. Karen Lewis, the medical director for the Arizona Immunization Program, part of the state Department of Health Services.

"But it tends to not have quite the severe impact because fewer total people are infected."

The H1N1 strain of influenza caused 1,895 hospitalizations and 151 deaths in Arizona since April 2009, according to state records. Lewis estimates that one out of every 150 children had an influenza-like illness last flu season.

However, what impact H1N1 will have this year is hard to predict. Individual immunity, immunizations from last year and the mutating nature of influenza make it difficult to forecast, said Jeanene Fowler, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.

"There are way too many factors to predict what the flu season will be like this year," Fowler said.

Despite this, some health officials remain optimistic that H1N1 will not be as virulent as it was the previous year.

"I don't anticipate seeing the same numbers as last year," said Michelle McDonald, chief medical officer for the Pima County Health Department.

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During the summer months health officials monitor the flu seasons in the southern hemisphere. Places such as Australia and New Zealand give some indication about the coming flu season.

"None of them had a terrifically bad flu season this year," McDonald said.

Kimbal Babcock, clinical services manager for the Coconino County Health Department, also cited the cases of Australia and New Zealand as a good indication that this coming season will be milder.

"Unless something bizarre happens we will have a regular flu season," Babcock said.

However, health officials say that the public should still be concerned about contracting influenza even if H1N1 is diminished this year.

"It's always a bad year. Influenza season is always stressful for hospitals and doctors and ICUs," Lewis said.

Health officials are pushing for everyone to be vaccinated against influenza this year. The vaccine now contains H1N1 along with other strains.

Other than vaccination, Lewis said thorough hand washing, keeping distance from the sick, staying home when sick and coughing into a sleeve rather than a hand will help stop the spread of the flu virus.

"Dodge the goobers," Lewis said.

The state's public universities are taking measures to ensure the health of students and faculty.

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Dr. Allan Markus, director of Campus Health Services at Arizona State University, said that ASU will continue a public information campaign from last year to warn students and staff about influenza.

Students have been encouraged not only to wash hands and use sanitizer but to also miss class if they are sick. Teachers are to be accessible online for those who can't attend classes.

Johnny Cruz, a spokesman for the University of Arizona, said the university will have on-campus vaccinations. This includes drive-through vaccinations, where anyone can receive a flu shot right in their car.

The university also has a scalable pandemic emergency response plan in place.

Influenza seasons in Arizona can start as early as September, builds going into the winter months and usually peaks in February.

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David Rookhuyzen/Cronkite News Service

A public information campaign at Arizona State University includes notices in bathrooms urging students, staff and faculty to wash hands.

“Dodge the goobers”

— Dr. Karen Lewis, Arizona Immunization Program

Tips for avoiding the flu

The Arizona Department of Health Services offers these tips for avoiding the flu:

  • Recognize the symptoms: Fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, headaches, vomiting and/or diarrhea are signs of the flu.
  • Get immunized: The vaccine protects against H1N1 and the most common flu strains, H3N2 and influenza B.
  • Wash your hands: Use soap and water, and wash thoroughly and often.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes: Use tissues or your elbow or shoulder. Do not cough or sneeze into yours hands.
  • Stay home: And stay home until at least 24 hours after symptoms are gone.