The copycat illnesses have ruined everything. To hear the health experts tell it, it’s almost impossible now for influenza to stand out in a crowd. A dry cough, a sore throat — even a runny nose — is not enough to get anyone’s attention anymore.
Those other illnesses got influenza down, copying its symptoms so the disease is mistaken for a common cold instead of life-threatening — until it’s too late.
Combined, the seasonal and 2009 H1N1 flu were responsible for thousands of U.S. deaths, while the number of those hospitalized were in the hundred thousands, according to representatives from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
To combat this trend, while encouraging mass vaccinations and debunking rumors about flu shots doing more harm than good, CDC representatives held a briefing Thursday at D.C.’s Academy of Educational Development (AED) Center for Health Communication on Connecticut Avenue NW.
The briefing came almost a month ahead of National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW), which will take place Dec. 6-12. In its fourth year, NIVW is an annual joint effort among the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC, the National Influenza Vaccine Summit and other immunization partners.
During that week, local health departments, public health partners and providers are encouraged to enhance vaccine availability by scheduling additional clinics, extending clinic hours and facilitating mass vaccination in retail and other locations during NIVW and through the remainder of the influenza season, according to a CDC handout.
Thursday, a dozen reporters engaged in a round-table discussion organized by New American Media to provide information to ethnic news media outlets. Topics ranged from the current extent of the H1N1 pandemic, to how H1N1 differs from the seasonal flu, to the vulnerable populations that should be vaccinated.“We notice that there continues to be increasing [seasonal and H1N1 flu] activity in the vast majority of the country,” said Dr. Inzune Kim Hwang, a chief preparedness officer for the CDC’s Influenza Division.
The seasonal flu claims an average of 36,000 American lives annually, while more than 200,000 are hospitalized from serious flu-related complications, according to recent data.
And unlike the seasonal flu, the H1N1 flu takes a heavier toll on the vulnerable populations, which consists of children and pregnant women. Since its detection in April 2009, H1N1 was responsible for more than 600 U.S. deaths. Of those fatalities, 60 were children and 28 were pregnant women.
Dr. Tyra Bryant-Stephens, medical director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), noted that both the seasonal and H1N1 flu hits children in urban areas the hardest, affecting 25 percent of asthmatic youths in those areas. “They’re two to three times more likely to get hospitalized,” she said.
Dr. Hwang noted that more than 97 percent of all the viruses seen in laboratories are of the 2009 H1N1 subtype. But instead of creating a vaccine for those viral strains, the current H1N1 vaccine is for one strain, noted Alan Janssen, a health communication specialist at the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD) Office of Health Communication.
There are also anti-viral drugs, such as the one used to treat Washington Capital left wing Quintin Laing. Thursday’s Washington Post reported that Laing’s recent diagnosis of H1N1 virus was confirmed by a team official Wednesday.
He was sent home Tuesday morning upon arriving at the team’s practice facility in Arlington, Va. and missed his first game of the season that night, according to reports.
A team spokesman told the Post that Laing, who’s been isolated from his wife and two infant sons, is taking anti-virus drug Tamiflu and resting. He won’t return to the team until he is symptom-free.
The CDC had posted guidance on how to use anti-viral drugs for treating influenza, noted Dr. Hwang. “The Tamiflu medication itself is a capsule-form,” he said. The treatment usually comes with ten capsules in a pack. “The normal way to treat is to treat one capsule twice a day for five days.”
If the symptoms persist or an individual continues to feel ill even at the end of that course, Dr. Hwange advised that they follow up with their health care provider to prevent the disease from becoming “a secondary bacterial infection,” or worst: some unusual form of influenza.
“The important thing to remember is that it shortens the course of the disease, but it’s not a ‘cure’ for the disease,” Dr. Bryant-Stevens said. “So we do try to use it judiciously.” She said the best course of action is vaccination.
There are about 30 million doses of H1N1 flu vaccine available for order, said Dr. Hwang who added that majority of them have been assigned to different states. “Roughly about 15 million doses have been delivered at this point,” he said.
On the issue of safety, experts said the vaccine is produced the same way as flu vaccines. “If this vaccine had shown up earlier, it probably would have been part of what we use for our seasonal flu shot,” Janssen said.
“It’s important to remember that the flu vaccine, right now, really is our only method of preventing bad outcomes,” Dr. Bryant-Stephens said. “Everywhere you look, there’s someone who would be affected by you getting the vaccine.”
Individuals who should not get the vaccine are those with severe (life-threatening) allergy to eggs, or to any other substance in the vaccine, according to the CDC. Those individuals are advised to inform the person giving the vaccine of any severe allergies.
Others who should not get the vaccine or should wait include:
-children younger than 2 and adults 50 years and older
-anyone with a weakened immune system
-anyone with a long-term health problem such as heart disease, lung disease, asthma, kidney or liver disease, metabolic disease such as diabetes, anemia and other blood disorders.