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So what is going on here? Puzzled health experts are analyzing the data for answers and speculating that high rates of other risk factors — such as asthma and diabetes — could be making minority groups more vulnerable.
To stay healthy, everyone at high risk of flu complications should get vaccinated, Goldberg said. "There is no better method of avoiding infection that getting vaccinated."
"We think the vaccine is much more important than antiviral drugs," he said. "The vaccine is much more effective. Among healthy persons under 65 years of age it is 70 – 90 percent effective. It reduces fatalities by 80 percent and hospitalizations by 50-60 percent."
Vaccinations protect those at highest risk and also reduce the spread of the infection, which helps protect everyone.
"Pregnant women make up just one percent of those who become infected, but six percent of deaths from complications," said Candice Larry, a pediatric medical assistant who works with Dr. Luanne Nilsen at Kaiser Permanente. "That's very worrying, so we really want pregnant women and everyone up to age 24 to get vaccinated."
Most years between 10 and 20 percent of Americans become sick causing 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 thousand deaths. But health officials are predicting that up to 90,000 Americans could die of swine flu complications this winter – with children, young people and asthma sufferers among the most vulnerable. If the virus changes form, those figures could increase, Goldberg warned. "It is the most unpredictable virus we know."
Katrina Hedberg, state epidemiologist for Oregon said in a normal year about 400 Oregonians die of flu complications.
"What we're seeing right now is more cases of infection than we'd expect," she said at the summit. "In Oregon we've had 92 hospitalizations in 11 counties and 11 deaths in five counties."
Gov. Kulongoski said the sheer number of people who are likely to become infected will endanger our economy – as well as stretch medical resources.
"If 40 percent of the workforce is sick then we might need to deploy the National Guard," he said. "So it's not just about the flu, it's about keeping our economy going."
All businesses and every family should have an emergency plan, the governor said, to plan issues such as who will look after children if adults become sick and how to keep a business going when many people are out sick.
"If we had a hurricane brewing with a strong possibility it would make landfall, then we'd all be preparing," he said. "This is essentially the same thing and it's likely to play out over the next few years."
Questions & Answers About the flu
Who should get vaccinated?
Candace Larry: Pregnant women, everyone under 24 years old and anyone with asthma, a lowered immune system or chronic illness. Also anyone living or working with babies, because babies under six months can't be vaccinated, and anyone living or working with chronically ill people.
How many vaccinations do people need?
Larry: You're going to need both the regular flu vaccine and the new H1N1 "swine" flu vaccine. The regular flu vaccine is either a shot or you can ask if you are a candidate for the nasal spray. Not everyone can take that because, unlike the shots it is a live vaccine, but it is great for many children because it offers more protection and they don't need a shot. Children under nine years who are getting their first seasonal flu shot need two doses. The H1N1 flu is a new vaccine and you need two shots — a first one and a booster two weeks later. So most people will need three shots with two weeks in between the first two and the booster.
You've been researching the issue. Why do people avoid getting vaccinated?
Larry: Some people think they can get sick from the shots. That's not true. The vaccine is not alive and can't make you sick. People sometimes confuse the "stomach flu" with regular flu. But stomach flu is not really influenza at all. Influenza or flu is a respiratory disease that gives you cough, fever and body aches. People say stomach flu to describe upset stomach and diarrhea. They are not the same illness. Also some people think doctors want them to have the flu shot because they get paid extra. That's a myth.
So why do medical professionals want people to get vaccinated?
We see that with the H1N1 flu, people have no protection and it's spreading rapidly. Vaccinations are the best way to protect children, asthmatics and the population as a whole from getting sick with flu and possibly developing complications that can lead to hospitalization or even death.
How can people get vaccinated?
You can get your seasonal flu shot from your regular medical provider. The new H1N1 vaccine will be available from mid-October and public health is still deciding how best to get it our there. It may be delivered through the school system so you child may come home with a permission slip. Sign that form and return it to the school. Medical clinics will also be giving the vaccines.
What about people without health insurance?
If you don't have health insurance and you are in a high risk group, contact your nearest county health clinic or low-income provider — for example, The Children's Community Clinic on 27 N. Killingsworth, Portland (503-284-5239) treats all children and teens regardless of income. If you don't know where to go call 211 for information.