Ad Campaign Against Flu
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Ad Campaign Against Flu

Date: February 22, 2008
By: Rebecca Beitsch
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Ben Mitchell is a character whom the Missouri Health Department is using in a defense against the flu as it moves from eastern Missouri west.

In a new series of ads running throughout the state, it is announced that four out of five people wash their hands. Ben Mitchell is the fifth guy, who doesn't wash his hands, cover his mouth or ever call in sick to work.

"Washing your hands, covering coughs and sneezes not with your bare hand but rather the crook of your elbow or a Kleenex, and if you're feeling bad, just staying home: These three things sounds simple but are effective for oneself and eliminating the spread," said Brian Quinn, department spokesperson.

As of Feb. 16, the most recent data shows that 11,918 flu cases have been reported, which is double the average of the past five years, according to Quinn. Each year 3,000 Missourians die from the flu or cases that advance into pneumonia. Much of the time, it is "sensitive populations" such as children and the elderly who become part of this statistic.

Thus far, 22 children nationwide have died as a result of the flu, which is an increase of 12 from last season, said Dr. Nancy Cox, director of the Influenza Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a recent press conference.

Although flu shots are still available, health departments are offering them with less frequency. Quinn recommends contacting a physician to ensure getting the vaccination.

The CDC already is making plans to change the vaccine for next year. Cox said that although the U.S. vaccine strains were well matched in comparison to Europe, next year the organization will be replacing three of the three different vaccine strains. "The influenza vaccine is not perfect, even when optimally matched," Cox said.

Sen. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, said his district north of Columbia has been hit particularly hard by the flu. "In northeastern Missouri there has been a tremendous amount of the flu. We've actually had some school districts that have closed down in response to the absentee level."

Schools in Knox County, part of Shoemyer's district, shut down for two days, Feb. 6 and 7, because 20 percent of the student body was absent and 18 teachers were sick, said Superintendent D.J. Leverton.

"I had one elementary class that went from 17 to six," said Leverton.

Knox County used the two canceled days to have custodians clean the building with the regular chemicals as well as some that kill 99.9 percent of all germs, Leverton said.

"Anytime that many students are gone, not a lot of education is going on," said Leverton, adding the temporary closing was best for the district.

Primary and secondary schools were not the only ones affected. A recent University of Missouri-Columbia softball game was rescheduled for April 30 because so many athletes from the opposing team, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, had contracted the flu, said MU athletics dept. spokesperson Chad Moller.

Academics have been affected, too.

"I woke up this morning and two of my three classes were canceled due to the teachers' illness," said Amy Oslica, an MU freshman. "So I slept in, which was good for me because I'm sick, too."

In the past week, Missouri went from being one of five states reporting only regional flu activity to one of 49 states reporting widespread activity. Only one state, Florida, is reporting only regional flu activity, according to the CDC's most recent data.

At this stage in the season, the Health Department is most focused on getting the word out through the media, but especially their new "Fifth Guy" campaign, which features Mitchell irritating his co-workers in this parody of "The Office." The commercials, produced by the Florida Health Department, were so successful they released it to other states.

"We never tried using humor to spread awareness," Quinn said. "Disease and illness are very serious topics. Humor doesn't usually play a role in that."

Quinn said the department has gotten positive feedback on the ads.

The first flu case of the season was reported Dec. 31, 2007, according to the department's Web site, but Missourians have only just reached the height of the season.

"We're getting into the worst of it, " said Quinn. "It's winter. We'll see cases into the spring."