Prepping for H1N1, round 2

4 min read

“Let’s all work together to make sure that we’re a city that’s prepared.”

These words from Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino not only launched Friday’s (Aug. 21) Boston Influenza Preparedness Summit, but crystallized its fundamental theme: No single entity can tackle a pandemic alone.

The event, organized by the city of Boston and hosted at Harvard Medical School’s Martin Conference Center, provided the first opportunity for Boston area business and community leaders to deliberate over prevention and containment strategies. While questions still remain about the H1N1 flu’s potential virulence in the coming months, there is little doubt that this particular viral strain will return. Friday’s event allowed the audience to hear the latest influenza updates as well as plan for particular scenarios that may or may not confront the city this fall.

“We are still operating in conditions of uncertainty,” said Julio Frenk, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health. After welcoming the overflow of attendees on behalf of University President Drew Faust and Medical School Dean Jeffrey Flier, Frenk emphasized the need to safeguard the health of high-risk groups and to ensure they have full access to vaccination. Frenk concluded his remarks by highlighting another major theme of the summit: communication. “Dissemination of information is the first and most important step.”

Fortunately, despite the “atmosphere of uncertainty” Frenk alluded to, early indicators give us reason to hope.

The seasonal flu vaccine will arrive earlier this year, in mid-September. The H1N1 vaccine should follow shortly after, becoming available as soon as mid-October — provided clinical trials go well. What’s more, public health officials have their eyes on the southern hemisphere, which is currently at the peak of flu season. According to John Auerbach, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, H1N1 does not appear to have mutated as it continues to spread below the equator. “It appears to be crowding out the seasonal flu for reasons not yet understood,” he said. In fact, roughly 95 percent of flu cases are H1N1. Still, according to the current data, we should expect roughly the same spectrum of illness here this fall.

A post-mortem of how the outbreak unfolded this spring has provided public health officials a blueprint for the fall. Electronic communications, such as regular Web updates on public sites, proved vital. This fall, “we will use every tool at our disposal to communicate,” said Ann Scales, Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) director of communication. “We want to get information to the places that people go for it!”

In addition to using current social networking sites, the BPHC will focus efforts on minority communities. “Dorchester really got clobbered by this last epidemic,” said Anita Barry, the director of BPHC’s Infectious Disease Bureau. According to data she presented, 49 percent people hospitalized for H1N1 complications last spring were African American, and 28 percent were Hispanic. To help curb such inequities, BPHC will target key areas with a variety of posters and advertisements providing essential health information.

Another issue complicating last spring’s outbreak was availability of antivirals.

For this fall, however, “We’ve spent $2.4 million for stockpiles,” said Auerbach. “We have 1 million courses of antivirals in our stockpiles right now. We’re also going to work closely with pharmacies so that we don’t see shortages.”

But just as important as these and other interventions are, speaker after speaker emphasized the need to educate the public on basic health precautions: Wash your hands, cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, and if you’re feeling sick, stay home from work or school.