Swine flu might miss healthy elders

Healthy people older than 65 should be immune to the current swine flu outbreak, but it could hit young people earlier this year than the regular flu season, said Dr. Tom Locke, health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties.

"This will not wait for the regular flu season. We could see it in the next week or two," he said.

Locke said the outbreak at Washington State University that sickened more than 2,500 students in late August demonstrates what happens in pandemics, even if the disease is similar to an existing one.

When there's a very large population so vulnerable, flu tends to spread to as much as 35 percent of the people very quickly, he said.

The WSU outbreak affected about 12 percent of the population. WSU began classes in mid-August.

Locke said Clallam County health officials are ramping up to prevent and reduce the expected outbreaks in day cares, schools and colleges.

Those older than 65 seem to have residual immunity because of the 1957-1958 pandemic, he said.

Killer flu of 1950s

That Asian flu outbreak killed an estimated 70,000 people in the United States and 2 million worldwide.

Locke said when swine flu was detected in April and May, fewer than 5 percent of the cases worldwide were people over 65 while 80 percent of the cases were in people 24 years and younger.

Therefore, seniors with intact immune systems and no serious illnesses should be OK, he said.

Seniors with cancer or other serious diseases, including those with compromised immune systems, are not at risk of getting sick from swine flu but they are at risk from the regular flu, he said.

Frail seniors may not handle the vaccine well and only 20 percent of those older than 75 respond to the regular flu vaccine, Locke said.

The plan is to surround those people, who often are in group settings such as assisted-living centers, with others vaccinated against swine flu, Locke said.

Family members of frail seniors and health care workers should be vaccinated against the regular flu and they will be candidates for the first swine flu vaccinations, he said.

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