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City encourages caution despite H1N1 preparations

The City of Boston is well prepared to deal with H1N1 influenza and seasonal flu this fall, but people should be more cautious and informed about ways to prevent flu, city public health officials said Monday.

Representatives from Boston Public Health Commission and Boston Public Schools spoke about the precautions the city is taking regarding H1N1 influenza at a hearing at Freedom House in Dorchester. City Councilor-At-Large John Connolly and City Councilor Charles Yancey of the Committee on Environment and Health and City Councilor Chuck Turner held the hearing.

‘We must take this very seriously,’ Yancey said. ‘Far too many people in the city are not taking this seriously.’

Barbara Ferrer, executive director of BPHC, said approximately 23,000 people have been infected with flu since the spring, and there have been five deaths from H1N1 out of 450 confirmed cases reported in the city of Boston.

Swine flu, as opposed to seasonal flu, has a tendency to strike in young people, she said.

‘This is different from the patterns we usually see in seasonal flu,’ she said. ‘For other flu, the ill and hospitalized are elderly. We see a lot of [sick] people that are younger.’

In Boston, an estimated 11 percent of all adolescents contracted swine flu in the spring, Ferrer said. Children younger than 18 years old made up 64 percent of flu victims in the city.

‘Schools are particularly hard hit,’ she said. ‘We closed 20 schools in the city because they weren’t able to operate safely.’

The pandemic also appears to have a bigger impact on Hispanics and blacks, Ferrer said. Thirty-seven percent of all swine flu cases occurred in black people, although black people comprise only about 26 percent of Boston’s total population. One-third of all confirmed cases were seen in the Latino population.

Overall, almost three-fourths of people hospitalized for the virus in Boston have been either black or Hispanic, Ferrer said.

‘In Boston, people who did end up being hospitalized, 50 had asthma, and residents of color are more likely to have asthma,’ she said.

She said although the flu has become more prevalent with fall, the City of Boston has thorough measures in place to handle any outbreak.

‘We are very well prepared for that,’ she said. ‘We have been working for years, actually, on plans about what to do if there was an overwhelming number of people who needed to seek care at the same time.’

Boston school officials said school policies have also changed, as fewer than half as many people are now seeking treatment as in spring.

‘Schools are encouraged to go about the business of education,’ Carolyn Riley, senior director of Special Education for BPS, said in a NECN news video of the hearing. ‘School closings are not recommended.’

To prevent flu, Ferrer encouraged people to wash hands frequently, cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing and try to avoid close contact with others if possible, such as shaking hands and hugging.

‘It’s good to modify these activities when we are facing an outbreak,’ she said.

Director of the Infectious Disease Bureau Anita Barry offered advice for college students in an interview before the hearing. She said although the H1N1 vaccine currently isn’t largely available, students should seek it out as soon as it is.

‘The vaccine is slowly becoming available,’ she said. ‘We expect there’ll be a larger amount [of vaccine production] sometime towards the end of November. But it’s important to remember that we recommend flu vaccination up until April.’

Barry also said students should be careful when going to parties, where personal space is limited and people tend to share cups.

‘You need to make it some kind of a trend that everyone uses their own cups,’ she said. ‘And if you aren’t feeling well, stay away from parties.’

Harvard University freshman Ben Blatt, one of the few civilian attendees at the hearing, said he’s not too worried about the flu.

‘I haven’t gotten the flu shot or anything, although they offered it,’ he said. ‘I’m not that terribly concerned.’

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