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State health director stresses need for H1N1 vaccinations

IRONTON — With the help of some federal funding, workers with the Lawrence County Department of Health are preparing to make the H1N1 vaccine available to county residents by mid-October, the state’s top health official said Thursday.

The H1N1 virus is commonly called “swine flu.”

Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Alvin Jackson said the state received $9.8 million in federal monies that will help his office and the state’s 130 local health departments market the H1N1 vaccine to the public.

In total, 85 percent of all stimulus monies the state received for public health this year were distributed to local health departments.

A new strain of swine-origin H1N1, first identified in April, is responsible for the current 2009 flu pandemic.

Jackson outlined his thoughts about the pandemic and other health concerns during his late afternoon visit with county and city health officials, the media and area politicians including Lawrence County Commissioner Les Boggs, Ironton Mayor Rich Blankenship and County Health Commissioner Dr. Kurt Hoffman.

Jackson discussed the importance of informing residents now about getting vaccinated for both flu and H1N1 this fall.

“We have a communication challenge currently surrounding flu shots that both are needed, not just one or the other,” Jackson said when explaining the differences between the H1N1 vaccine and annual flu shots.

Jackson outlined which “priority groups” would have first access to the H1N1 vaccine as debate continues on how many actual doses could be available come October.

Federal officials planned on having 120 million doses of the vaccine on-hand by Oct. 15, but vaccine makers have estimated only 45 million doses being available by then.

Jackson said the first priority group would include pregnant women, those under 65 that suffer from chronic illness, children ages six months to 24-years-old, anyone taking care of children that are under 6-months-old along with EMS and health care workers.

He also took time to address his department’s decision to reduce the supply of free flu shots the state will provide to local health departments this year.

The state plans to purchase only 45,000 vaccines this year, down from 190,000 in 2008.

Jackson said the decision came from his department “historically having many, many flu shots leftover” at the end of the flu season and with the state’s current economic status, it became a money saving decision.

Despite the decrease in the availability of free flu shots, Jackson urged everyone to use common prevention sense in reducing their chances of contacting the flu by washing their hands correctly, covering coughs and sneezes and not sending sick children to school.

Lawrence County was the latest stop for Jackson who is on a statewide-swing of all 130 health departments to establish a stronger relationship between the state and local health departments.

It was the first time in more than 30 years the state’s top health official visited the Lawrence County Health Department.

He was quick to thank each health worker in attendance for their part in making public health what it is.

“We are truly the cradle to the grave initiative,” Jackson said when speaking about how public health affects everyone and how it has contributed to 25 of the 30 additional years that have been added to the American life expectancy rate.

Workers got their chance to question and offer their suggestions to Jackson as well.

Some questions included how to decrease costs in light of budgetary cuts and availability of grants, the state’s “Help Me Grow” program that saw a large chunk of its funding slashed and the communication difficulties between individual state health departments on issues like birth certificates and infant deaths.

He also briefly mentioned Gov. Ted Strickland’s initiatives to handle Ohio’s infant mortality and childhood obesity rates.

Currently, the infant mortality rate in Ohio is higher than the national average. Jackson said those figures prompted Strickland to establish the Infant Mortality Task Force earlier this year.

The task force has a two-pronged approach. First, it examines the state’s overall infant mortality rate and the disparities between different populations while secondly, making both preliminary and long-term recommendations to reduce infant mortality.

Jackson said the rising childhood obesity rate is also another concern, especially in Appalachia Ohio.

Last year the state developed a comprehensive plan called the Ohio Obesity Prevention Plan to identify a number of priorities that schools and communities like Ironton should have in place in the next five years.

Jackson also touched on the large number of “unintentional deaths” from prescription drug poisoning in southern Ohio calling it a “solemn epidemic” for the region.

He reiterated recent statistics that showed more people dying from overdoes in Lawrence and its surrounding counties than in motor vehicle crashes.