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H1N1:Caution, not panic -- Medical pros talk about realities of flu

The only thing more destructive than a virus is the fear that surrounds it, some local health officials say.

As fall progresses and the island readies itself for the winter cold, panic over the H1N1 virus steadily increases. Surrounded by an environment of unanswered questions, the virus leaves many people scrambling for the correct response. Should I get vaccinated? Will vaccinating my child fatally infect them with it?

Dr. Mark Fishaut, a pediatrician at San Juan Healthcare Associates in Friday Harbor, has much to say about remaining calm in the face of such frenzy. Fishaut says controversy over the vaccine arises in part from an emotional reaction to government intervention. As soon as politicians are involved, suspicions rise. “People don’t like being told what to do by the government,” he says.

Fishaut, a father of four adult children and an active soccer coach, puts a human face on the medical facts. He practiced every preventative measure with his own children and advocates a common-sensical approach to health. Enforce “intense hand-washing” and good hygiene, he says, recommendations that remain accessible to every household.

Fishaut says that although he has seen many cases of people with flu-like symptoms, the medical community cannot state whether the H1N1 virus exists on the island. Labs are testing only those pregnant or hospitalized with flu symptoms and thus those on San Juan who fall outside these criteria must listen to the advice of their doctors.

Recommendations of staying home and resting are familiar procedures against the common flu. Fishaut says people should remember the oncoming season is associated with this more familiar virus, meaning that people are more prepared than they think.

Because of media attention, it is easy to mistake H1N1 as something unique and lethal, but Fishaut says the common flu kills thousands of people each year. H1N1 is not some pernicious foreign virus, it is a version of something we have experienced. It is a case of adapting to something we already know about, he says.

Of course, adaption is necessary because the virus is not identical to ordinary flu. H1N1 is different in that it manifests in a different age demographic. Unlike common influenza, H1N1 is more readily contracted by the young. This is because of the virus’s make-up. Public Health nurse Martha Sharon describes H1N1 as a “jumble of genetic material.”

Since the H1N1 virus contains strains of old influenza, those older than 65 are likely to have been exposed to these past viruses. Consequently, their bodies have an increased chance of immunity, leaving the traditionally young and healthy age bracket of 2-25 most at risk.

This fact is why there is so much attention over the return to school. Sharon cited a prediction by the Health and Community Services Department that anticipated a swell in the numbers absent from school with flu symptoms. This has been backed up with figures from the San Juan Island School District.

Friday Harbor High School, for example, saw absentee figures rise from 13 on Sept. 21 to 45 on Oct. 5. Sharon is quick to clarify that these figures are not the amount of children who actually have flu, merely those who are absent from school.

She corroborates Fishaut’s recommended hygienic procedures, stating that something as simple as distancing the ill from the household is “remarkably effective.”

Additionally, both believe in dispelling fears surrounding the virus and vaccine.

“People are worried about the vaccines,” Fishaut says, “but these are products that have been tested and used successfully for a number of years.”

Sharon concurs that the vaccine will not poison you or make you sick. Its make-up may differ slightly from the conventional, accustomed flu vaccination, but the fashion in which it is prepared and purified is extremely similar.

Fishaut and Sharon are telling parents: Don’t panic. Take precautions. And talk to your doctor.

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