TOPEKA — As the cold and flu season approaches, the top health official in Kansas is urging all residents to get a flu shot to fight off another outbreak of the H1N1 virus.
Jason Eberhart-Phillips, state health officer for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the agency is following federal recommendations by urging all Kansas residents to get vaccinated, not just those with chronic or diminished health conditions.
"The guidance has been expanding every year," Eberhart-Phillips said. "There's going to be enough, so protect yourself, protect the ones around you."
KDHE is also making a push to get all health care workers vaccinated to help prevent the H1N1 virus, commonly known as swine flu, from spreading. Eberhart-Phillips said a new study shows that despite 12,000 deaths in the U.S. related to H1N1, only 37 percent of the nation's health care professionals said they got the vaccination.
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He said the new KDHE campaign also will encourage residents to ask their physicians and nurses if they got a flu shot.
"It's a little edgy," Eberhart-Phillips said. "This is a critical patient-safety issue, a matter that goes to the heart of every health care professional's obligation to do no harm."
The H1N1 virus was first reported in Kansas in April 2009, and Eberhart-Phillips said the state learned many lessons from last year's flu season. Among the improvements are better disease and illness tracking across Kansas and more residents protecting themselves from illness.
"There has been a revolution around the culture of washing hands, covering coughs, staying home. It's just much less culturally acceptable to expose friends and co-workers to a communicable disease," he said. "It's an exciting thing and I hope it doesn't fade away."
Flu vaccines are being distributed several weeks earlier than normal, he said, and supplies are expected to remain ample even with more Americans encouraged to get the shots.
"It's really different from last year. Hopefully last year was a once-in-a-lifetime year," he said, referring to the pandemic nature of last year's outbreak and availability of vaccine.
Eberhart-Phillips said the best indicator of how the flu season may behave in Kansas is by looking to the Southern Hemisphere, which is approaching its springtime. There, the flu has still had the same H1N1 strain and there are deaths, but the intensity of the virus is down.
In New Zealand, for example, areas that didn't have high outbreaks of the flu in 2009 are seeing more cases this year, suggesting that people who got H1N1 last year are protected somewhat this year, he said.