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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 5, 2003

Flu arrives early, but it's not too late for a shot

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer

Flu has hit Hawai'i more than a month earlier than usual, and while the strain hasn't hit here with the ferocity that's occurring elsewhere, "that doesn't mean it's not about to happen," said epidemiologist Tracy Ayers, influenza surveillance coordinator for the state health department.

Gary "Dan" Daneau, a technician at SUN Industries in Mapunapuna, gets a flu shot from nurse Liz Copowycz. Daneau called the shot "preventive maintenance."

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

While schools and offices are showing only a scattering of absences so far, the health department is nonetheless recommending that everyone get a flu shot — not just those in high-risk categories such as those older than 65, with compromised immune systems, and with a variety of life-threatening conditions.

"Our message right now is it's not too late to get your flu shot," said Darcie Yukimura, health department spokeswoman.

At this point Hawai'i physicians have only isolated the "A" Panama strain, which is comparatively mild. But it is also the strain that mutated on the Mainland to become "A" Fujian. The "A" Fujian strain, linked to deaths in Colorado, emerged after manufacturers began preparing this winter's 83 million doses of vaccine and is not covered in this year's flu vaccine.

Although the Fujian strain is not included in the vaccine, it is closely related to the Panama strain that is used and the vaccine should provide at least partial protection, according to the CDC.

"The vaccine is going to lessen the severity if you get the disease, or keep you from becoming ill at all," Ayers said. "It's a close enough match (to the viruses causing illness) to provide some protection.

On the Mainland, Colorado and Texas have borne the brunt of the outbreak so far, with Colorado reporting 6,306 confirmed cases, nearly three times the number incurred during the entire flu season last year. At least seven Colorado children from 21 months old to 15 years old have died so far. Normally, two die during a typical flu season.

"What happened in Colorado is these children had other complications as well," Ayers said. "I believe one child was asthmatic. So they had other issues that made it fatal."

Nationally about 35,000 people die each year because of influenza, with the deaths last year in Hawai'i from flu reaching 312, according to state health statistics.

The statistics were scary enough for Sonny Jarvis to make sure his whole family was vaccinated, including his 17-year-old daughter who played with the Roosevelt High School band in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York.

"We thought she might as well take the flu shot, too, since she had to take a physical for high school," Jarvis said.

Find a clinic

To find a clinic giving influenza shots, dial 211 or go to www.hawaii.gov/doh and then look for the heading marked "Get Your Flu and Pneumonia Shots." Additional information on vaccinations is at www.vax hawaii.com.

Flu symptoms generally include a fever and respiratory symptoms such as a cough, cold, congestion and headache.

Antivirals that may shorten the illness are available through physicians. Two generic names include amantadine (sold as Symmetrel) and oseltamivir (sold as Tamiflu.)

Jarvis got his shot yesterday — for free at work.

"It shouldn't harm me, so why not?" he said.

With flu season in Hawai'i running from October through May, but generally beginning in earnest in January, the season already has a different "personality" this year, Ayers said. While cases have been recorded on O'ahu and Maui, none has yet been verified on Kaua'i or the Big Island.

"It's much earlier in comparison to last year. Maybe it's a different bug," Ayers said. "Or maybe we're traveling more this year than last year because of Sept. 11."

Employees at SUN Industries in Mapunapuna, a subsidiary of Grace Pacific, got the prevention message yesterday as they signed up for free flu shots, compliments of the company.

"I wouldn't go out of my way to do it, but if the company offered, why not," admitted Gary "Dan" Daneau, a company technician who installs electronics.

Daneau said he felt it was "preventive maintenance" even though he's not prone to get sick and hasn't had a flu shot in years.

"Just talking to the guys around here, they were going to get the shot because it was available," he said. If it hadn't been, they never would have done it, he said.

"Let's face it, I can't ever remember any of the guys saying, 'I'm going to take the afternoon off and go get a shot.' "

Liz Copowycz, a nurse with Medical Corner Clinics who travels to worksites giving flu vaccinations, said it makes sense for companies to offer the protection.

"A lot of the companies are realizing it's cheaper to do this than give people sick pay," Copowycz said. "Or have to bring in temps to cover for those out sick."

For Fay Rawles-Schoch, employee relations manager for Grace Pacific, pushing to vaccinate all employees was a no-brainer.

"If you're young and healthy, yes, you could shake it off," she said. "But you could give it to someone it could kill. We lose as many people to the flu every year as to automobile accidents."

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.