Health & Science

Health officer expects 3rd wave of swine flu

Health officials are watching for a third wave of H1N1 influenza to strike and are urging people to get vaccinated to help stop the virus from spreading again.

There's plenty of swine flu vaccine available for anyone who wants it and it's recommended that everyone get it, said Dr. Larry Jecha, Benton-Franklin public health officer.

"There is so much out there. We have a surplus," he said.

It's a different story for the seasonal flu vaccine. There are no vaccines available, except for the very young, and many people weren't able to get it this year, Jecha said.

The good news, however, is that the seasonal flu doesn't appear to be making its way across the nation, he said.

Typically, seasonal flu is in the Tri-Cities by the third week of January, Jecha said. But it isn't here yet and it's not showing up in other states either.

"Only 2 percent of all cultures in the United States are not H1N1," he said. "Are we going to get it or not? No one really knows what's going to happen. Ours is usually really implanted by the end of January and we get it through March.

"Last year it was a little later, but at least we were still seeing it," Jecha added. "Hopefully we don't get it."

No one knows for sure that the third H1N1 wave is coming -- or even when it will hit the Tri-Cities if it does start, but officials do know that there are usually three waves of a pandemic, Jecha said.

"We didn't have the vaccine in time to stop the second wave, but we're hoping if we can get 50 percent protected, you can stop the third wave," he said.

It's not clear how many Tri-Citians have been vaccinated, but officials say there's still a way to go to get to 50 percent. At least 50,000 vaccines were distributed in the community and the health department had more than 7,000.

People in high risk groups -- pregnant women, people around kids up to 6 months old, health care workers, children ages 6 to 21 and those 21 to 50 with chronic diseases -- are especially urged to get vaccinated.

Parents of children younger than 10 also need to remember that their kids need a second H1N1 shot four weeks after the first to be fully protected.

Tri-Citians heading to the Winter Olympics next month also should be vaccinated, Jecha said.

"People from all over the world are coming into one small area," he said.

When the first waves of swine flu hit, there was a high demand for the vaccine but not enough vaccine to go around. Now it's readily available but the demand isn't there, likely because many who came down with it realized it wasn't so severe, Jecha said.

"It's apathy. After the wave went through we found out it wasn't that bad," he said. "But we are very fortunate it was a mild strain."

If the third wave moves through the area, it also likely will be mild, but that shouldn't stop people from getting vaccinated, he said.

As of Friday, no states were reporting widespread influenza activity and only five states -- Alabama, Georgia, New Jersey, South Carolina and Virginia -- reported regional flu activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There have been 1,383 Washington residents hospitalized with influenza since Sept. 19, and 76 deaths, according to the Washington Department of Health. In Eastern Washington, 432 residents have been hospitalized and 20 deaths have been attributed to influenza.

-- Paula Horton: 582-1556;