H1N1 Aftermath, Are We Still at Risk?

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"I probably should have been in the hospital, with the weight loss and the dehydration and all of that, but I was just too sick to go to the doctor."

That's how Cathy Freeman felt once she was infected with H1N1.

"The fatigue and nausea and within 24 hours I had this cough that just wouldn't stop," says Freeman.

While a painful experience, Cathy is one of the lucky ones who beat the virus.

Within the last year, five people in Winnebago County have died from H1N1. That's the second highest number in the state, behind Cook County, with a shocking 52 deaths. And while our four other local counties, Lee, Ogle, Stephenson and Boone, did not have any H1N1 deaths, more than forty percent of counties in Illinois did.

Many of those H1N1 deaths had to do with underlying medical conditions.

"Respiratory conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, any other chronic disease, diabetes kidney problems, cardiovascular disease, being pregnant," says Mike Bacon, Public Health Director with the Winnebago County Health Department.

Bacon says minorities, like Hispanics and African Americans, also have a greater chance of getting the virus.

Once Winnebago County was hit with H1N, the Pandemic Influenza Plan went into full effect.

"Pharmacies, our healthcare institutions in the community, as well as our department, or schools, volunteers, were all just critical to the response," says Bacon.

In District 205, education was their biggest tool.

"We just put signage everywhere, on the bathroom doors, on the classroom doors, in the hallway, everyplace imaginable where the eyes would go," says Mary Fisher, District 205 Health Services Supervisor. That's in addition to cleaning, but not closing the buildings like some Stateline schools.

Those actions were crucial because most people who got H1N1 in the county, were under the age of 25.

"Those who were exposed to that earlier virus may have had some cross-immunity, that's why the elderly were least at risk here which is exactly the opposite you see for seasonal influenza," explains Bacon.

But if we're not already immune to it, how do we prevent getting H1N1? Health experts say it's as simple as following the three C's; cover your cough and sneezes, clean your hands and contain your germs. That means if you're sick stay home.

Fisher says, "I'm not sure that we've ever distributed that message so clearly before, but we were concerned enough about it spreading to others that we wanted employees to stay home."

Another simple way to avoid getting the flu is to get vaccinated.

"We still have four out of five in the community unvaccinated and we don't know when H1N1 is going to show up again, that could be this coming flu season in the fall and the winter, it could be over the course of the summer, everyone should be vaccinated against this," says Bacon.

"It's nothing to mess with. I was going to get the vaccination but it hit me before i had the chance," says Freeman.

Local health leaders say their biggest frustration in handling the H1N1 outbreak was not initially having enough vaccine on hand.

And in case of another outbreak, the Winnebago County Health Department is asking for our feedback on how the entire situation was handled. We can find a short survey on the homepage of its website at www.wchd.org. We can also get information there on how to get vaccinated for free.

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