ILWACO - In the wake of the tragic deaths of an 18-year-old from Ilwaco on Feb. 11 and a 20-year-old Western Washington University student on Feb. 20, the Washington State Department of Health is urging greater public awareness of the prevalence of influenza, pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses this winter.

Lucas Barrett of Ilwaco died in Portland at Oregon Health Sciences University of acute respiratory failure after testing positive for Type A flu and a type of staph infection in his lungs. Kathy Spoor, director of the Pacific County Health Department, said in a press release that she can't discuss specific cases but that some test results are still pending in our local flu case.

Chris Feden, the WWU student, died last Thursday from what local health officials have identified as MRSA-pneumonia, which is rare. The Barrett and Feden cases are not linked.

Respiratory illnesses - including flu - typically peak in Washington in February and March. These illnesses can be very serious and even fatal. MRSA - methicillin-resistant Staph aureus - has been increasing in communities around the nation; and as a result, MRSA-pneumonia cases have also increased.

The state Department of Health is providing support to health officials in Pacific and Whatcom counties as they investigate these cases. The state health department reports influenza activity is widespread around the state. And while the rate is lower than might be expected this time of year, respiratory illness should be taken very seriously.

"Prevention is the best strategy to avoid spreading respiratory infections, and the tools of prevention are thorough hand washing and getting a flu shot," said State Health Officer Dr. Maxine Hayes. "It's not too late to get a flu shot. We're still in the midst of influenza season."

Speaking to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Hayes said "It's a combination of a community-acquired infection and flu season. It can cause catastrophic events, which is what happened to this young man," she said, referring to Feden. "Influenza is serious, and sometimes people think it's just a bad cold, but here we have a staph infection superimposed to that. Now we have MRSA and now we have more complications, and it's a killer."

Here in Pacific County, Spoor also encouraged anyone who hasn't gotten a flu shot to call the Pacific County Health Department at 642-9349 or 875-9343 to get a shot. They still have some vaccine available. Additionally she said the health department is working with all health care providers in the county providing information and direction regarding treating individuals displaying flu and respiratory symptoms.

MRSA can be a complication of influenza and other respiratory illnesses; MRSA-pneumonia, while rare, is increasing around the country. People who are sick with a high fever, a cough that won't go away, or other severe respiratory symptoms should consult a health care provider. More information on flu season and MRSA is available on the Department of Health home page at www.doh.wa.gov.

It has been reported in national news media that the currently available flu shot is not a very good match with the strains of the disease in circulation this winter, but the shot does provide some protection.

Type B shot shortage

In other health news, the Washington State Board of Health held a special meeting on Feb. 21 to respond to a nationwide shortage of the vaccine against Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib). At the meeting they considered a Department of Health proposal that would allow children who have deferred their fourth Hib vaccine to enter childcare without filing an exemption.

Because of the nationwide shortage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced Washington's allocation of vaccine. In response, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends the fourth vaccination in the Hib series be deferred. This conflicts with a board rule for childcare and school entry that references an ACIP schedule published before the shortage. That schedule recommends a Hib booster for children ages 12 to 15 months. This means a fourth Hib vaccine is required for children older than 15 months. The state health department may develop a plan that defers the fourth Hib vaccine, but the board must approve the plan. Since children could be excluded from childcare under the current arrangement, the board decided not to wait until its next regular meeting in March to take action.

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