Flu outbreak could cripple area

Published 11:44 am Saturday, September 5, 2009

WINTON – It’s not quite the end of summer, but yet local health officials have their sights fixed on the cold and flu season.

While not in an effort to sound any alarm bells, officials with the Hertford County Public Health Authority (HCPHA), as well as their counterparts throughout the Roanoke-Chowan area medical community, say the upcoming flu season is filled with the unknown. This is particularly the case when discussing the H1N1 (Swine Flu) virus that caught the world a bit off-guard in April of this year.

In an exclusive interview with the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald on Thursday, HCPHA officials discussed the flu season at length. Much of the discussion – led by HCPHA co-interim director Diane McLawhorn – centered on H1N1. Others taking part in the discussion included co-interim director Ramona Bowser, public information officer Kathryn Sellers and Susan Askew, Director of Community Health Services.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), H1N1 was originally referred to as “swine flu” because laboratory testing showed that many of the genes in this new virus were very similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs (swine) in North America. But further study has shown that this new virus is very different from what normally circulates in North American pigs. It has two genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and bird (avian) genes and human genes.

McLawhorn said HCPHA receives regular updates in regards to seasonal flu and H1N1 from the North Carolina Department of Public Health as well as the CDC.

“As of right now we are responding to the H1N1 virus just as we do seasonal flu; they’re similar in the fact that both are transmittable diseases,” McLawhorn said.

However, that scenario could change depending on the severity of a flu outbreak.

“The way we handle things would change based on two components,” she noted. “One, if we see cases becoming more severe; and, two, we see more people becoming ill with a milder form of the virus.”

What could become an alarming statistic in the latter of those two components is who is left to operate local businesses and schools if a widespread outbreak occurs?

“Such an outbreak could quite possibly have a huge impact on the everyday things we take for granted,” McLawhorn said. “It’s like the old saying, who’s minding the store.”

Preventive Medicine

Another old saying is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In that regard, HCPHA is ahead of the game by already establishing solid lines of communication with community partners.

“We’ve been working closely with the schools here in Hertford County, they are extremely proactive when it comes to protecting the health of their student population,” Askew said.

Sellars added, “We have been in contact with all community partners, such as our local businesses, chambers of commerce in Ahoskie and Murfreesboro as well as our physicians, pharmacies and veterinarians in order to inform them on H1N1 as well as the seasonal flu.”

“State and local government offices, hospitals and daycares are all included in our communication efforts,” McLawhorn said. “Chowan University and Roanoke-Chowan Community College are also part of our networking.”

The latter two, along with all public and private secondary schools, are breeding grounds for flu viruses.

“We expect to see increases in seasonal flu and H1N1 now that school is underway,” McLawhorn noted. “It’s inevitable when you have so many people in close contact with each other.”

Other than seeking medical attention, McLawhorn said the best advice to those who come down with a case of the flu is to stay at home.

“If you are sick, stay home; don’t go back to school or work until 24 hours after you show no signs of having a fever,” she suggested.

The spread of any type of flu virus can also be controlled by covering your mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing. Frequently washing your hands with soap and warm water is another key way to help keep the flu bug at bay.

“Since this is a contagious virus, touching an affected door knob or other item used regularly by the public can spread the virus as it’s transmitted after that contact by touching your eyes or nose,” McLawhorn noted. “That’s why it’s so important to keep your hands washed on a frequent basis.”

She added, “Based on trends seen thus far, if you encounter someone with an upper respiratory illness, you can assume it’s seasonal flu or possibly H1N1.”

The symptoms of the H1N1 virus include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. A significant number of people who have been infected with this virus also have reported diarrhea and vomiting. Severe illnesses and death has occurred as a result of illness associated with this virus.

See a doctor immediately. Locally, Roanoke-Chowan Community Health Center locations (Ahoskie, Murfreesboro, Colerain) are “sentinel sites” for H1N1, meaning they have the authority to perform rapid tests and immediately send those results to the state health lab. In most cases, results are returned in 72 hours.

If you go directly to a hospital, you will not be tested for H1N1 unless you are admitted for an overnight stay.

Vaccine developed

As scary as this all may sound, there is help on the way.

McLawhorn said clinical trials on a H1N1 vaccine, manufactured for the federal government and distributed nationally by the CDC, are nearly complete and doses may be available as early as next month. It will come in the form of a injectable vaccine for adults and a nasal spray for small children. The drug is administered in two doses, 21 days apart, by medical professionals.

Sellars added that according to information from the CDC, there will be enough of the vaccine to handle the national demand.

“The plan is to first administer the vaccine to those deemed as at risk,” McLawhorn said.

Those individuals include women who are pregnant, households where there is constant contact with infants under the age of six months, young people between the ages of six months and 24 years, healthcare and emergency medical workers and adults with underlying risks such as diabetes and chronic lung disease.

There is also a plan currently being developed where health departments will go into the school system and administer the drug.

“That’s something we haven’t done before,” McLawhorn said.

As far as keeping the public informed, McLawhorn said that effort will include the local newspapers, radio and television as well as distributing informational pamphlets. She added that the state’s public health officials will soon begin a series of televised public service announcements regarding seasonal flu and H1N1. Locally, she said that cable channel 19 (operated by Hertford County Public Schools) has already begun posting public service announcements.

For more information on seasonal flu or H1N1, visit www.cdc.gov or www.epi.state.nc.us/epi/gcec/hiniflu.html. The HCPHA can be reached at 358-7833 or by visiting www.hertfordpublichealth.com.