State, advocates launch homeless flu initiative

State health officials and advocates for the homeless are working to raise awareness about flu prevention among a group that is often overlooked: the homeless.

The initiative by the Georgia Department of Community Health and the Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness is critical because it specifically targets a population that is transient and can easily fall through the cracks when it comes to  health care.

Educational pamphlets are being distributed to homeless shelters and other providers to promote health safety.  Officials are also urging people to get the flu vaccines, which are available at public health centers.

The initiative will also educate volunteers and shelter staff who work with the homeless.

‘The more we can keep it contained and controlled, the better off it is for everybody," said Katheryn Preston, executive director of the coalition.  "A lot of  volunteers and staff don't live there. They go back into the community.  They go home. They are also likely to expose other people."

She said they want to reach out to people who operate food pantries and meal programs as well.

On any given night there are as many as 23,000 Georgians who are homeless, Preston said. While most find a shelter to stay in, many live on the streets.

"They're more vulnerable," said Preston.  "A lot live in congregate settings or it may not be easy for them to wash their hands frequently. There's also the element of weather, which plays a role in weakening the immune system.

The coalition's flu outreach has been in place for several years, but it's being ramped up because seasonal flu and swine flu are circulating at the same time.

So far in Georgia, 33 people have died and more than 600 have been hospitalized with swine flu, according to state health officials.

Even in the rural areas, where the homeless are less visible, officials are trying to reach out.

Dave Palmer, a spokesman for District 2 Public Health, which includes Banks, Dawson and Hall counties, said they are reaching out to food banks, churches and health clinics.

"That's one of the populations we're worried about," he said. "They go out to the woods and camp out. We really don't see them."

Some homeless people may have have chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart problems which puts them at greater risk of developing complications from swine flu. Pregnancy also puts people at greater risk.

The recommendations closely follow CDC guidelines such as thorough cleaning and disinfecting common areas, frequent hand washing and washing eating utensils in a dishwasher or by hand with detergent and water.  Shelters should also train the staff in the control of infectious diseases, and provide access to personal protective apparel, such as gloves.