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One in four Californians could be affected by swine flu, state health chief says

August 27, 2009 |  9:27 am

California's state health officer said today that one in four Californians might be affected by swine flu this fall.

Dr. Mark Horton made the prediction in a letter to Californians released today by the California Department of Public Health. "All of us must prepare for the disruptions the novel H1N1 influenza virus may have on our daily lives," Horton said in the letter.

H1N1 Horton's letter is the latest warning to be issued by public health officials about H1N1, commonly known as swine flu.

Last week, top national and local health officials warned that employers should brace for worker absences and cautioned the public that as many as three shots this season may be needed to protect against the H1N1 strain and seasonal flu.

California health officials said the combination of H1N1 and the regular flu season could strain the state's healthcare system. Emergency rooms are often filled to capacity during bad flu seasons, but the addition of H1N1 could make the situation even worse. Hospitals are already looking at creating alternate care sites to handle flu patients and plan a public education campaign imploring those with mild flu symptoms to avoid ERs.

"One thing we know is that this will be a rapidly changing situation.... We’re really not going to understand the extent or nature of the pandemic until we’re in the middle of it," said Dr. Jim Leo, associate chief medical officer at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that the most at-risk populations receive the H1N1 vaccine first. Those populations include pregnant women, healthcare workers, parents and caregivers for children under 6 months old, people ages 6 months to 24 years, and those ages 25 through 64 with chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems.

Those groups constitute 159 million people in the United States -- more than half of the population.

Once those groups have been vaccinated, U.S. health officials will recommend that people ages 25 through 64 receive H1N1 shots.

--Rong-Gong Lin II

Photo: A dose of the experimental vaccine for the H1N1 flu virus is prepared at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. Credit: Mark Humphrey / Associated Press