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CDC: Swine flu could be the unwanted guest at Thanksgiving gatherings

Happy Thanksgiving. Time to pass the turkey, dressing, pumpkin pie — and possibly swine flu.

Despite a slight decrease in H1N1 flu activity in the United States in recent weeks, federal health officials say things could pick up again with the start of the holiday season, as more people congregate at shopping malls, airports and family gatherings.

"Our expectation is that the next several weeks will be busy ones as people increase traveling over the holidays," Dr. Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said during a press briefing.

Health officials' advice: Travel only when you're healthy, wash your hands frequently, cover your cough with the crook of your elbow and get vaccinated.

One problem: There hasn't been nearly enough H1N1 vaccine.

"We're still very limited," said Maggie Hall, Pinellas County Health Department spokeswoman.

That agency recently had to scale back school vaccination efforts. And although there are small supplies at each Pinellas public health center to vaccinate high-risk groups — including young people, pregnant women and health care workers — there's not enough to advertise that they're vaccinating the general public, Hall said.

Hillsborough County Health Department spokesman Steve Huard has been suggesting that people check with their doctor or walk-in clinic to see if they have the vaccine available. Many private providers have signed up to administer the shots and have ordered doses, but few have received it in quantity.

On Wednesday, Schuchat said vaccine supplies continue to increase, with another 7 million doses added to the national supply since Friday.

"We're expecting to see vaccination efforts step up as we head into December," she said.

That's when both the Pinellas and Hillsborough health departments hope to offer the vaccine to the general population.

Schuchat noted that 43 states, including Florida, continue to report widespread flu. But that's down from 46 states just a few weeks ago, leading groups including the World Health Organization to suggest that H1N1 cases may have peaked in the United States.

CDC officials wouldn't go that far, particularly with the arrival of the holiday season. Schuchat noted that far more people have flu now than normally do at Thanksgiving.

"I wish I knew if we had hit the peak," she said. "We don't know if these declines will persist, what the slope will be, whether we'll have a long decline or if it will start to go up again."

Swine flu has sickened an estimated 22 million Americans, hospitalized about 98,000 and killed 4,000 since it was first identified last April. It is similar to seasonal flu but poses a much bigger threat to children and young adults than to seniors, who are more vulnerable to seasonal flu.

Traditionally, the CDC has seen increases in respiratory infections in January, right after the Christmas holidays.

"Well, all the kids get together with their grandparents, and that's a lot of exchange of warmth and love,'' she said, "but a little exchange of viruses, too."

Richard Martin can be reached at rmartin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8330.

FAST FACTS

More information

• Flu.gov offers H1N1 statistics, preventive measures and an H1N1 vaccine locator.

• The Pinellas (pinellashealth.com ) and Hillsborough (hillscountyhealth.org ) health department Web sites also provide useful information, including school vaccination efforts.

CDC: Swine flu could be the unwanted guest at Thanksgiving gatherings 11/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 10:19pm]
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