By LANE BLACKMER
Capital News Service
LANSING—With flu season around the corner, health officials in the northern and southwestern Lower Peninsula with the state’s highest numbers of flu-like symptoms last winter are working to keep the numbers down this time around.
According to the Department of Community Health’s influenza surveillance for the previous season, Northern Michigan reported that about 21 percent of visits to participating health providers were attributed to flu-like symptoms. Southwest Michigan came in second with about 17 percent of patients reporting flu-like symptoms. The overall state percentage was about 10.
Last year was the first season H1N1 hit, causing the first worldwide flu pandemic in more than 40 years, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“We got hit hard,” said Northwest Michigan Health Department public information officer Jane Sundmacher in Petoskey.
Her agency serves Emmet, Charlevoix, Antrim and Otsego counties.
“Once the flu establishes in an area, it spreads very quickly,” said Sundmacher.
She said that nearly all school districts in her area closed due to the outbreak.
Last flu season was also unusual because it started earlier than normal, said Nigel Paneth, a professor of epidemiology and pediatrics at Michigan State University. Also, the season typically peaks in January or February, but peaked around November last season.
Paneth said that although he’s unaware of much flu activity yet this season, there may be reason to worry.
“There’s historical evidence that second year can be pretty nasty,” Paneth said. “The truth is, nobody knows what’s going to happen this year.”
The CDC has selected 122 cities to be under surveillance for the flu. Nationwide, there were 759 flu-related deaths in a recent week, including four in Lansing and three in Detroit. Paneth said these numbers aren’t unusual.
Because this is the first season when an H1N1 vaccine is readily available for everyone, Paneth suggested that people of all ages get vaccinated.
Last year, children and young adults were the most strongly encouraged to get the vaccine because of its limited availability, he said.
The vaccine works against three flu strands: H1N1, H3N2 and influenza B, said James McCurtis, public information officer for the Department of Community Health.
Northwest Michigan officials are pushing an aggressive plan to make the vaccine widely available.
“We’ve contacted all of the schools and have offered to come on site and immunize their students for free,” said Sundmacher.
She said the health department in Northern Michigan has scheduled vaccinations at senior centers and at five area health departments, but schools are the only place where vaccines are free. It’s $15 at other locations.
Sarah Hagen, infection control manager at Sturgis Hospital, said efforts in Southwest Michigan are being ramped up as well.
Aimmee Mullendore, clinic coordinator and communicable disease nurse for St. Joseph County, said the high number of Southwest Michigan cases last season may be because the county is so near the state border, meaning commuters may bring back the illness from other
However, Hagen said the high number of area residents with flu-like symptoms last season might have resulted from greater participation in the reporting program.
Mullendore said vaccinations are offered at schools, senior centers and health departments in St. Joseph County.
Kindergarteners, sixth-graders and new students in the county are monitored, she said, to make sure most are vaccinated. Although the shot is not required to be in school, it is highly recommended by the CDC.
The CDC says people specifically at risk of complications from the flu include pregnant women, children under 2 and adults over 65.
Symptoms, according to the CDC, include high fever, headache, tiredness, cough, sore throat, stuffy nose, body aches and diarrhea and vomiting.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.