November 30, 2011
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Better check your woodpile and your air quality.
Amid concerns about agricultural pests and air pollution in Southern California, state and local authorities have been paying closer attention this year to wood-burning fireplaces, one the most fragrant, but environmentally vexing, aspects of winter in L.A.
For instance, the Southern California Air Quality Management District will begin issuing mandatory “no burn” advisories through the end of February on days in which fine particulates in the area exceed federal health standards. Though the advisories are expected to be rare, and first-time offenders can get off the hook by taking a smoke-awareness course, fireplace owners who repeatedly light fires on those days can be fined up to $500.
“Fine particulates are not only bad for the environment, but bad for our health,” says AQMD spokeswoman Tina Cherry. “They can lodge deep in your lungs and exacerbate lung conditions and asthma. So this year, on days when the fine particulate levels reach 35 micrograms per cubic meter, we’re asking people not to burn wood.”
State and agricultural authorities, meanwhile, have been urging residents with wood-burning fireplaces to “buy it where you burn it” when it comes to firewood because so many invasive insect pests and diseases are transported in woodpiles.
“Right now, there’s a quarantine in San Diego County because of a pest called the Goldspotted oak borer, which spreads via wood and is a real threat to oak trees,” says Frank McDonough, botanical information consultant at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden.
“But you have to be careful even in areas without quarantines.”
The measures and warnings seek to wean Southern Californians from the wood fires that are such a tradition this time of year. To many, one of the coziest aspects of winter is the smell of a eucalyptus or oak log in the hearth, burning down to embers, but the fires that perfume winter nights with that smoky aroma also spew about 5.5 tons of particulate matter a day, on average, into the region’s air, according to the AQMD.
The new “no-burn” mandates are the latest in a set of measures aimed at controlling that pollution. Wood-burning fireplaces and stoves have been banned in new developments since 2009 in California, and voluntary no-burn days were initiated last year.
Although AQMD data has indicated that curtailment conditions can occur as often as 15 times in a typical winter, only one voluntary no-burn advisory was issued in 2010-11, and that was in February in the Riverside area, Cherry says.
This year’s mandatory no-burn laws will run from November 1 until February 29, and the AQMD will issue residential wood-burning advisories to let the public know whether particulate levels are elevated.
Residents can call a “Check Before You Burn” hotline at (866) 966-3293 to find out whether an advisory has been issued, or click here to sign up for an online notification. An interactive no-burn advisory map, which allows users to check for advisories by entering a ZIP code in the search area, is also available here.
November 22, 2011
Mmm. Turkey and stuffing, cranberries and sweet potatoes, pie and ice cream—few pleasures are as reliably delicious as Thanksgiving dinner, or as enduring: The basics alone will set you back thousands of calories.
Fortunately Los Angeles County has a bounty of public recreational options that can help offset the gluttony, many of them right here in the 3rd District. So as we load up our plates this week, let us also give thanks for the equally enduring pleasures of a Thanksgiving morning workout or a brisk walk after dinner. Here are some of our favorite menu additions for a healthy holiday:
Take a hike
It’s not an accident that a landmark in the Santa Monica Mountains is the headquarters for a health and fitness reality show. The hills and canyons of Los Angeles County have been an inspiration to millions, and the county’s trail system just keeps getting better. With the exception of a couple of small parcels, for instance, the 65-mile Backbone Trail is now almost entirely owned by the public, and the long-planned Coastal Slope Trail has passed several key milestones this year.
Enter the Fitness Zone
You don’t need to join a gym to improve your strength, flexibility or cardiovascular abilities. Thanks to the Trust for Public Land, outdoor gyms have been installed in the last four years in more than two dozen parks across the county, with durable, weather-resistant exercise equipment designed to let you get toned at no cost. Both El Cariso Park in Sylmar and Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles now have Fitness Zones that are just waiting to help you whittle away that second helping of stuffing. (For a map of Fitness Zones, click here.)
Hit the bike trails
Better yet, ride over the river and through the woods on one of Southern California’s paved bike paths, some of which are world famous, after all. If you’re socially inclined, preface your dinner with one of the Thanksgiving bike rides that have been organized in places like Beverly Hills and Brentwood. With events like CicLAvia capturing the public imagination, pedal power has never been hipper than it is right now in L.A.
Step into liquid
You’ll probably need a wetsuit, but who in Los Angeles wouldn’t give thanks for our beaches? Even if you don’t like to surf in November, the Southern California coast offers endless fitness opportunities—for free. If you’re not a water baby, check out the Marvin Braude and Ballona Creek Bike Trails. Or make like Zev and take a beach run between Santa Monica and Marina del Rey before Thanksgiving dinner.
Pick up the pace
If you can walk, you can speed walk, or even jog a little. If you’re feeling really ambitious, maybe you want to sign up for one of this year’s “Turkey Trots” for runners in Burbank, Topanga and Van Nuys. More interested in proceeding at your own pace? Run the UCLA perimeter or shake a leg on one of the two jogging tracks at Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks Park. Out-of-town guests? Take the whole crew to the San Vicente median, jogging track to the stars (or, in any case, the almost-famous). It’s grassy, tree-lined, filled with beautiful people and easy to get to, and if you do the whole 6-mile loop from Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica to South Bundy Drive in Brentwood, it’ll knock about 600 calories from your intake. Or make room for extra pie.
November 17, 2011
As Los Angeles County closes in on its first updated bicycle master plan in 36 years, cycling advocates this week urged planners to incorporate more ambitious and innovative approaches to making streets welcoming for bicyclists of all ages and abilities.
The plan as currently drafted would add 816 miles of new bikeways in unincorporated Los Angeles County over the next two decades, at a cost of $327.7 million. But critics say the plan relies too heavily on the lowest category of bike route—just signage, no dedicated lanes—and doesn’t embrace enough forward-thinking solutions for getting new riders to brave Los Angeles County’s streets.
“The plan before you…is basically straight out of the ‘70s,” said Eric Bruins, a USC cycling coach who was among those turning up on Wednesday to address the county’s Regional Planning Commission as it prepared to take up the plan, the county’s first since 1975.
Bruins told the commission to look no further than Long Beach for examples of cutting edge design, such as “cycle tracks” that separate bike lanes from automobile traffic with a row of parked cars.
“We’ve unnecessarily limited our toolbox, and the kinds of facilities that are missing from this toolbox are those that are going to actually increase ridership,” Bruins said.
Bruins also urged bike planners to take a page from another upcoming county initiative, the proposed Healthy Design Ordinance, to make sure that the best possible designs for cyclist and pedestrian safety are written into the plan.
The county’s plan, developed with the Department of Public Works acting as lead agency, requires approval from the Regional Planning Commission before it can move to the Board of Supervisors for final consideration.
Commissioners heard testimony Wednesday, but then voted to delay a decision until Jan. 11, 2012, to allow time for completion of the plan’s final environmental impact report.
The commissioners praised the work that has gone into the bike plan so far—and so did some of the speakers.
Alexis Lantz, planning and policy director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, commended the county for its efforts and acknowledged the complexity of the job. But, she told the commission: “We feel there’s still work to be done to create a visionary bike plan that will truly serve our unincorporated communities for the next 20 years.”
Among other suggestions, she said the plan should give greater priority to improving cycling conditions in low-income communities and in areas with high obesity rates and significant concentrations of bicycle-related accidents.
The plan envisions adding several different kinds of bikeways to the county’s current 144-mile network. It proposes creating 70.6 miles of dedicated, car-free Class 1 bike paths. It also would add 265.9 miles of Class 2 bike lanes on streets with markings to delineate a place for bikes to ride.
And there would be 21.3 miles of “bicycle boulevards”—neighborhood streets with traffic-slowing measures in place to create better venues for cycling and walking.
Most of the new bikeways, however, would be Class 3 bicycle routes—shared roads with signs reminding drivers that cyclists are using the street but without specially designated lanes for bikes. Those would account for 458.6 miles of the 816 total miles proposed.
One speaker, Michele Chavez of the Antelope Valley High Desert Cyclists, told the commission that she was “very pleased” with the plan overall. But she said some of the proposed Class 3 routes are in areas where speeding motorists are common—and hazardous to people on bikes.
“I’m concerned that what will happen is that just a green sign will be put up that says ‘bike route’ and the cyclists will be no safer on these roads,” Chavez said, suggesting that two- to four-foot paved buffers be installed along the routes.
Sam Corbett, an Alta Planning + Design consultant who helped prepared the bike plan for the county, said the Class 3 routes should not be dismissed as unambitious.
“Class 3 facilities aren’t just all signage and stenciling,” he said. He said that 270 miles of the Class 3 routes would require road widening to increase the travel lanes to at least 14 feet in each direction to accommodate cyclists as well as cars.
Overall, Corbett said, the bike plan could help pave the way for a bicycle transformation in Los Angeles County similar to what’s happened during the past 15 years in Portland, Oregon.
“In 10 or 15 years, I think we can be where Portland is now,” Corbett said.
But some speakers, like Alice Strong of the West San Gabriel Valley Bicycle Coalition, said that’s too long to wait.
“I hope we don’t take 15 years to catch up with Portland. I’m sorry, but we should be leading,” Strong said. “We should be the innovators here.”
Strong said she would like to see many of the Class 3 routes upgraded to Class 2 lanes.
“We want to get more women cycling,” she said, “and we just don’t feel safe with just a little sign.”
October 20, 2011
On Monday, America will celebrate the first annual Food Day with a cornucopia of events across the country intended to raise awareness of the importance of safe, affordable and healthy food, produced responsibly.
Sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest with no corporate or governmental funding, the event is modeled on Earth Day, and is being guided by an advisory board that includes Los Angeles County Director of Public Health Jonathan E. Fielding, restaurateur Alice Waters, author Michael Pollan, preventive medicine expert Dr. Dean Ornish and a number of other esteemed activists, politicians and physicians.
L.A.-area events range from a weekend fruit pick in Granada Hills and a Westwood screening sponsored by the UCLA Maternal and Child Nutrition Leadership Training Program to a fundraising luncheon in Downtown Los Angeles sponsored by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.
And if you just want to celebrate with some delicious and healthy meals courtesy of celebrity chefs from around the country, click here for some great Food Day recipes.
July 20, 2011
If Carmageddon taught Los Angeles one thing, it’s that maybe we aren’t as dependent on our vehicles as we thought. By some accounts, traffic on the Westside was lighter than any time since the 1984 Olympics. Large numbers of residents heeded officials’ warnings and spent the weekend away from their cars–a healthy behavior that doesn’t have to change now that we’re back to normal again.
With the help of some online resources, we can convert our Carmageddon memories into a few new habits. Take, for example, one of the weekend’s most talked-about lessons: the story of how the bikes won.
Last weekend, in a highly publicized race, a team of cyclists made a trip from Long Beach to Burbank faster than the passengers of a Jet Blue airplane. Join them and other L.A. cyclists by participating in some of the many local organized cycling activities.
The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition lists the major cycling events, and other sites like bikeboom.com list daily events on a local level. You can participate in CicLAvia, go off-road with the mountain biking crowd, or learn to do your own bike maintenance. More and more Southern Californians are realizing the potential of pedal power, and with a new L.A. County Bicycle Master Plan in the works, the region is only becoming more open to cycling.
Meanwhile, there’s the corollary to the bike lesson: Another racer came in a close second simply by using Metro and traveling on foot.
Take your own stroll with the Los Angeles Conservancy, which organizes docent-led walking tours focusing on the history and architecture of the best parts of the city. Self-led and commercial tours also can be found in places like Hollywood and the Miracle Mile, where walkers can visit the Petersen Automotive Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Page Museum, and the Craft and Folk Art Museum—all in a single outing. L.A. is famous for some of the fairest weather in the country, so almost any time of year is good for a walk.
If the hustle and bustle of the city isn’t your thing, there are peaceful trails and parklands all over the county to hike, bike, or even explore on horseback. Take a guided nature trek, learn to track wildlife, see how area Native Americans lived, or roast the perfect marshmallow at a family campfire evening. Check out the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy’s website for full listings of outdoor events and educational programs.
“We hope the public will come out and enjoy the many activities and programs our parks have to offer in the Santa Monica Mountains,” said Joseph T. Edmiston, the conservancy’s executive director.
Don’t wait for Carmageddon II to enjoy its benefits!
March 9, 2011
Don’t throw away yard waste, he exhorts. Composting can reduce water consumption by up to 50% per household. And don’t forget the lowly earthworm.
“Worm tea is the strongest organic fertilizer there is,” he likes to say.
Thomsen, an environmental consultant and master gardener based in Cerritos, has conducted the Countywide Smart Gardening initiative for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works since 1998. Launched 20 years ago as a way to reduce the amount of yard waste being sent to landfills, the program has grown to encompass not only green-waste recycling, but a range of assistance on the creation and maintenance of sustainable landscapes.
The county now operates nine demonstration and learning centers where visitors can learn—for free—about sustainable agriculture, native plants, water conservation and organic gardening. As a bonus, Thomsen’s weekend workshops offer subsidized compost and worm bins for $40 and $65, respectively—a healthy 60% discount.
Countywide Smart Gardening information stands have been installed in parks, schools, community gardens and nature centers. The program’s experts will make presentations at the L.A. County Fair in September and host a booth at the Natural History Museum next month as part of its “Sustainable Sundays” program on “edible landscapes.”
Public Works’ Smart Gardening Program Manager David Perez says the program has educated thousands of Southern Californians, who have been increasingly driven toward home gardening by concerns about the environment and sustainability.
“We do free workshops where the public can learn about composting, where they can see native plants and native gardens, where they can get a feel for the process,” says Perez. And one of the most popular features (besides the discounted composting apparatus) is Thomsen’s no-cost advice.
“I come from an agricultural background—we’ve done composting since I was about 5,” says Thomsen, who was born in San Gabriel and raised on farms in Oregon and Idaho. Thomsen earned bachelors degrees at Oregon State in business administration and statistics, with a special emphasis in agriculture.
He returned to Southern California in the early 1990s to get his certifications in solid and hazardous waste management at UCLA, just as municipalities were working to comply with a then-new law requiring cities and counties to halve the waste they were sending to landfills. Thomsen and his brother, Keith, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA in environmental science, began working with engineering consultants to help local governments set up composting facilities and recycling programs before the law’s 2000 deadline.
That expertise, he says, led to the creation of their own environmental consulting firm, BioContractors, Inc., through which Thomsen—with contract oversight from Public Works’ Perez—now runs Countywide Smart Gardening. Thomsen and his crew do 50 workshops a year at the learning centers, plus another 35 or so hosted offsite presentations that are co-sponsored by church groups, nonprofits and other municipalities. Spring is crunch time; between Earth Day observations and demand for spring planting information, his calendar is typically booked solid.
“Right now we’re at 31 events scheduled for April alone,” he says.
“The big push we like to do is vermi-composting because it has so much benefit to the environment,” Thomsen says. That’s composting with worms. Thomsen’s favorites are Eisenia fetida (also known as African Red Worms or Red Wigglers). Bred to thrive in the debris layer of jungle topsoil, they can process massive amounts of organic matter quickly, eating and excreting 80% to 100% of their body weight each day in food waste.
Besides aerating the soil, Thomsen says, they produce manure, or castings, that can be mixed with potting soil to create a high-nitrogen bioactive fertilizer. And, he says, the liquid from those castings—a substance called ‘worm tea’—can be diluted to create a systemic fertilizer, or used straight to kill gnats, aphids, white flies and most weeds.
Thomsen tells his audiences that even regular backyard composting can dramatically improve their garden yield—and make a crucial environmental difference. “The average person in L.A. County generates about a ton of garbage a year,” he says. “Forty percent of that is compostable.”
That’s 800 pounds of table scraps and grass clippings per year per person that could and should be fertilizing yards in L.A. County, “instead of going into a landfill.”
Is composting smelly? “No,” he says. “If you do it right, there should be no odor.”
Is it time-consuming? “No. About three minutes to put the bag of material in the bin and stir. You add water on a weekly basis.”
Does he compost at his house?
Here he laughs. Turns out Thomsen used to, but his current landlords, in Bellflower, are—for now—non-believers in his gospel.
“They won’t let me put in a composter, so I take all my stuff to the office. I have four worm bins there.”
Here is a video introduction to Backyard Composting, brought to you by L.A. County’s Countywide Smart Gardening program.
February 9, 2011
They can tell when unscrupulous dog importers are bringing in underage puppies with bogus paperwork claiming vaccinations that never happened.
And, increasingly, they can see how the well-being of humans and animals is interrelated—for better or worse.
The multifaceted mission of the Department of Public Health’s little-known veterinary unit is testament to how times have changed for animals and humans alike in Los Angeles.
“Now that animals are becoming members of the family, sleeping in people’s beds, we need to create ways to help people improve their pets’ health, and improve their own health, too,” says Ehnert, 50, a UC Davis-trained veterinarian who’s been acting director of the unit since June. “There’s an incredible human-animal bond.” Walking and exercising family pets outdoors can also play a broader social role in the county, helping people “take back their communities,” she says. “There’s a huge public health benefit.”
The vet squad dates from a time when hoof-and-mouth outbreaks were bigger news than Hollywood gossip, and people thought of anthrax as a cattle disease, not a terrorist weapon.
A history of the department, written by Dr. Patrick Ryan, who retired last year, is full of fascinating and sometimes gruesome tidbits chronicling L.A.’s bygone livestock quarantines, tuberculosis-tainted dairy herds, disease-ridden slaughterhouses, garbage-swilling hogs and, during the Depression, roving rabid dogs attacking horses and cattle.
Well, L.A.’s no cow town anymore. And Ehnert and her unit are evolving to serve a metropolis in which people outnumber livestock, and canine rabies has long been wiped out, thanks to widespread vaccination programs. The last time a Los Angeles dog was reported to have had rabies was in 1962.
A primary mission of the team these days is still rabies control, but the culprits now are very different, with bats the likeliest to be infected, followed by skunks and foxes. This “Rabies Tales” comic, created by one of the department’s veterinarians, Dr. Emily Beeler, gives a good overview of how to handle exposure to a potentially rabid bat. (It also provides the welcome news that rabies shots are not given in the abdomen anymore.)
The unit takes reports on virtually every animal bite that comes to the attention of medical or law enforcement authorities in the county. It currently is working on a community-by-community analysis of where dog bites are most prevalent.
And it has an educational role, communicating with veterinarians in practice throughout the county and with the public at large about disease outbreaks and protective measures, including the importance of regular vaccinations to prevent many pet illnesses.
Lately, it’s been using the department’s Twitter feed to spread the word about how healthy human habits can lead to healthier pets. One recent Tweet focused on how smoking hurts pets.
It’s also preparing an online “Pet Health and Safety Quiz,” modeled on the department’s Food Safety Quiz (in which home cooks can test their food preparation savvy against the department’s standards for restaurant inspection and grading.)
What’s more, the vet squad has been a key player in a multi-jurisdictional effort called the “Border Puppy Task Force,” aimed at stopping the importation of sick and unvaccinated puppies through Los Angeles International Airport.
Ehnert said her team’s spot checks at the airport as part of that effort found that 40% of the large shipments of puppies coming through had falsified paperwork. The phony documents would claim, for instance, that the incoming dogs were four months old and had been vaccinated when in fact they were less than 8 weeks old—too young to have teeth, let alone effective vaccinations. In recent years, popular imported breeds coming through LAX have included English and French bulldog puppies from Colombia.
The vet squad currently is working on a proposal to turn its spot checks into a more regular monitoring arrangement, working in tandem with federal officials stationed at the airport.
The unit has undergone its share of changes over the years. Its lab was closed due to budget cuts in the mid-1990s. Its veterinary staff was shifted for a time to the Department of Animal Care & Control but later rejoined public health. Now budget cuts may once again affect the unit, which has 4 licensed vets and a registered veterinary technician among its 19 budgeted positions. Ehnert says seven of those slots are currently vacant due to retirements and leaves of absence.
The budget uncertainty hasn’t stopped the vet squad from looking ahead.
Ehnert is proposing a “2020 Healthy Pets, Healthy Families” initiative that would bring together veterinary educators, local vets, animal control agencies and public health officials with the goal of producing new standards for pet health by the year 2020. “Healthy pets can lead to healthy people,” Ehnert says in her proposal for the effort, intended as a pet-centric offshoot of the federal government’s Healthy People 2020 initiative.
January 25, 2011
Increasing numbers of Los Angeles County residents are finding themselves in a blue state. And it has nothing to do with political affiliation.
A new report from the Department of Public Health shows that 13.6% of adults in the county report having been diagnosed with depression at some time in their lives—an increase of nearly 50% between 1999 and 2007. The rates went up for all adults, but the increases were most pronounced for those from 25-29 and 60-64. The condition continues to affect more women than men (16.6% compared to 10.3%) and is more common among whites and African Americans (17% and 16.6% respectively) than Latinos (12.4%) and Asians/Pacific Islanders (6%.)
The report said that those who have been diagnosed with depression are likelier than others to smoke and drink heavily and to get less exercise. It found that more than 35% of those who said they’d been diagnosed with depression also had chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. And it reported that many in the county said they’d been unable to afford mental health care or counseling when they needed it.
Some of the increase in reported depression can be attributed to greater public awareness of depression and better diagnosis of the problem, as well as to a possible decrease in stigma attached to the condition, said Dr. Susie Baldwin, chief of the department’s Health Assessment Unit, which produced the report.
Even so, depression represents a huge personal and social challenge.
“From any perspective, depression takes a large toll in terms of disease burden, and is the most common mental health problem. We need to ensure that those suffering from depression get diagnosed early and receive timely care,” Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, the county’s Director of Public Health, said in a press release.
“The takeaway is that this is very common and not something that is the fault of the individual,” Baldwin added. She noted there are many ways to help—from family members being patient with a depressed loved one to public policy-makers providing funding for mental health programs. The report also lists several recommendations for things employers and companies can do to help with depression in their workforce.
The report emphasizes that the best way to fight depression is to get help from a mental health professional. It said that free and low-cost help is available and urged anyone who needs it to call the county Department of Mental Health hotline, (800) 854-7771. Other resources listed include the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services agency, which has a 24-hour suicide crisis line (877-727-4747), along with community outreach programs and other assistance available.
The report draws on information gathered as part of the L.A. County Health Survey, conducted every three years from thousands of randomly-selected telephone respondents. Because it does not include the worst years of the economic recession, it does not indicate whether increasing financial stresses, including job losses and home foreclosures, are pushing depression rates even higher in Los Angeles County.
Those factors will be examined in the 2010 survey, with initial results not expected until early 2012. “It’s going to be interesting when we get the new data,” Baldwin said. The next report also will indicate how many people are currently feeling depressed—not just whether they’ve ever been diagnosed in the past.
January 19, 2011
Three people have died in the county so far this flu season—a 48-year-old man, a 29-year-old woman and a 4-year-old boy. Both of the adults who died were obese, and all of the victims died from an influenza strain that can be prevented by the flu vaccine, public health authorities said. They urged flu shots for everyone over the age of six months to help protect them during a fast-moving flu season that is expected to accelerate through February and continue into the spring.
Unlike last year, when there were highly-publicized vaccine shortages and widespread public concern about H1N1, commonly known as the swine flu, this year’s influenza season seems to be attracting less attention so far.
But it can be just as dangerous.
And, as the cases involving this season’s first Los Angeles County victims show, obesity could play a role in how seriously the highly contagious virus plays out.
A Public Health department analysis of last year’s flu season, when the H1N1 pandemic was in full swing, shows that obesity was the No. 1 risk factor cited in those who died of the flu in Los Angeles County, followed by “underlying pulmonary, metabolic and cardiac conditions.” The vast majority of the 149 people whose deaths were officially attributed to last season’s flu—88%–had some kind of underlying medical condition, the analysis said. Overall, health officials estimate that the average flu season results in about 1,000 deaths a year in the county, although it is listed as the official cause of death in only some of them.
Last year’s flu season was unusual in that older people—those who are typically considered most likely to die from the flu—experienced fewer deaths and complications than younger people, probably because the elders are believed to carry greater immunity to H1N1. In L.A. County, last season’s flu proved most deadly to those between the ages of 50 and 64. Latinos had the highest rates of intensive care hospitalization and death, while Asians had the lowest. And young children were the most likely to be hospitalized for the disease, but the least likely to die from it.
The link between obesity and H1N1 complications is increasingly well-documented. A recently published scientific paper studied 534 California patients hospitalized for H1N1 during the 2009 flu season and found that half of them were obese—and that those who were the most obese were the most likely to die from the flu.
“I think it is just more evidence to the story that obesity is not just a social condition. It is a medical condition that has risks,” said Dr. Janice K. Louie, head of the surveillance and epidemiology section of the California Department of Public Health and the lead author of the study. She said that anyone with a high body mass index—greater than 30 and particularly greater than 40—should treat flu season very seriously. “If your BMI is 35 or higher, you really should be very aware that influenza is very severe and can kill you. And you should get your flu shot.”
The Centers for Disease Control recently added morbid obesity to its list of medical conditions that place someone at high risk of flu complications. The others include asthma, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and HIV/AIDS; the full list is here. Others at high risk include pregnant women, children under 2 and adults 65 and older.
Flu shots and nasal mist flu vaccine are widely available. People can get the inoculations through their personal doctor or local pharmacy. They also can find a vaccination clinic by checking Public Health’s immunization program website, by accessing the Find-A-Flu-Shot locator, or by calling 2-1-1.
Whatever your risk factor, public health officials say that getting a shot is the responsible thing to do both from an individual and a community health perspective. And they point out that all of the old common sense rules of the season still apply: covering coughs and sneezes, washing your hands frequently and staying home from work or school if you’re sick.
“That’s probably the best way we can stop the spread of the disease,” said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, director of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention for Los Angeles County. It may not be easy to call in sick in this economic climate—but it’s the right thing to do. “Employers out there should recognize that this is beneficial to them,” Kim-Farley said. “It’s self-enlightened for them to have a healthy workforce.”