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Flu might fizzle — but don’t bet your life on it

The name H5N1 probably doesn’t ring a bell, but perhaps you remember its other name: bird flu.

Back in 2005, we were asked to imagine worst-case scenarios in which sports arenas would be filled with cots for the suffering, while the as-yet-unscathed would lock their doors and hunker down, afraid of the contagion that might lurk at the grocery store, school or restaurant.

As it turned out, bird flu didn’t ravage the United States. Such false alarms aren’t unusual. For years we’ve been hearing about the threat of a widespread flu outbreak that, like the Great Pandemic of 1918-19, would stretch America’s health care system to the breaking point while killing tens of millions of people around the world.

These dire predictions have yet to come true, so it’s tempting to adopt a somewhat laissez faire attitude toward the latest pandemic threat, H1N1 — a.k.a. swine flu. An Associated Press poll last week found that 29 percent of respondents were "not at all concerned" about swine flu, and another 31 percent were "not too concerned." Just 17 percent were "very concerned."

We believe the level of concern will increase, and in fairly short order. The initial panic has waned somewhat, but more than 300 people have died in the United States from swine flu since the outbreak began four months ago. And although just 44,000 lab-confirmed cases have been documented, experts estimate that more than 1 million Americans have been infected. Teens and young adults continue to be hit unusually hard.

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Olmsted County Public Health Director Mary Wellik says the county is taking no chances.

"We have a high-level team in our department that is working on preparations every day," she said. "We’re spending significantly more time than we have in the past, because we need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario."

And, although there is some comfort in knowing that Rochester is home to one of the best medical centers in the world, Wellik admits that it’s a mixed blessing.

"Mayo is a wonderful partner in terms of preparing for this, but just by virtue of it being a large institution with many employees, and as a result being in a community that has a lot of people coming and going, it makes it more complicated," Wellik said. "We’re working very close with Mayo, and they’re as invested as any organization could be in making sure that we control this if it happens."

The county and the clinic can only do so much, however, and personal responsibility will play a key role in how well we come through what could be a very difficult flu season. It’s likely that many people — school-age children, senior citizens and anyone with respiratory problems such as asthma — will need to be vaccinated against both seasonal flu and H1N1. Mass vaccinations at schools are a real possibility, and for full protection against swine flu, most people will require two shots, making a total of three for protection against this year’s flu threats.

Employers will also need to play a role in containing the flu, both by offering on-site vaccinations and by encouraging some of their more "dedicated" employees to stay away from the office when they’re under the weather.

"People will need to stay home when they’re sick," Wellik said. "They’ll need to keep kids home from school when they’re sick."

We might be making much ado about nothing, and everyone involved in fighting the flu hopes for that outcome. But right now, it’s best that we all try to make our own luck.

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So when the time comes, be ready to roll up your sleeves.

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