By Mark Taylor, Post-Tribune correspondent

State public health officials are taking advantage of recent declines in the number of H1N1 cases statewide to move vaccine to college and university populations to prevent a third wave of the pandemic that killed eight last week and has killed 33 since June 1.

While Indiana State Department of Health tracking of the virus indicates decreases in absenteeism, hospitalization, emergency room and office visits due to the swine flu, disease rates remain higher than last year's flu season.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Judy Monroe said the increase in deaths from six the previous week to eight last week (Nov. 15-21) was not unexpected. Monroe said the disease might have peaked several weeks ago.

"We typically see more deaths following the peak of activity when there are the most people sick," Monroe said. "But the deaths usually don't occur until a little later."

Monroe said the period before colleges break for the Christmas holidays offers an opportunity to vaccinate thousands of college students before they return home and potentially transmit the virus to those in their home towns. "There is a window of opportunity here to vaccinate college students," she said. "It's a strategic move for us."

She said 10,000 doses were distributed to Purdue and Indiana universities this week, with thousands more allocated to Indiana State University, University of Notre Dame, Ball State University and other larger schools. Counties that are home to smaller colleges and universities will receive larger vaccine supplies in the coming weeks to target students there.

Monroe said of the 450 confirmed H1N1 flu cases sampled around the state, 84 percent have been in the zero-to-24 age range, with 47 percent in the college age group of 19-to-24.

She said the state has ordered more than 1.25 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine to date and more than 500,000 Hoosiers have been vaccinated.

She cautioned that a third wave of the pandemic could return in January or February when the typical seasonal flu season intensifies. She said it could be spurred by the return of college students and other holiday travelers.

"We continue to encourage anyone in the target population -- pregnant women; health-care workers; people with chronic conditions and children from infants to age 24 -- to get vaccinated."

Porter County Health Department official Eric Kurtz said the county has been providing vaccine to Valparaiso University through its health services center and has focused efforts there on university-age students.

"We're also exploring a possible clinic at Ivy Tech's Valparaiso campus," Kurtz said. "But our vaccine supply remains constricted. We were promised 85,000 doses and so far have received only 25,000. The vaccine is flowing steadily, but no faster than before and this is causing the vaccination process to drag out into January or February. It's a real marathon."

A spokesman for the Lake County Health Department said flu activity has slowed, but health department staffers continue to vaccinate children in local schools and through Monday-Thursday clinics at the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point.

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