Column: H1N1 influenza may surprise us, so stay alert
Don't close the book on H1N1 quite yet.
The mild form of this new virus continues to spread even though it doesn't look like it from the reported numbers.
The content of reports has changed.
The Minnesota Department of Health is now testing only patients who have been hospitalized with flu-like symptoms that are "probable" cases of the new strain. The urgency for confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control has diminished partly because the flu is not as severe as feared and also because the test results of probable cases reported from MDH are 99.99 percent accurate diagnoses of the Novel H1N1.
Beginning with the two cases reported April 23 in one state, as of May 10, 2009, there were 2,532 cases in 44 states and more are expected.
Likewise, this kind of flu is now in 30 countries.
When the World Health Organization increases the level of alert, now next to the highest, it is measuring the number and location of cases. A "pandemic" means an illness is appearing suddenly in significant numbers in at least two areas of the world. The illness is not necessarily severe.
We need to continue to monitor the disease and contain its progress because flu viruses are notorious for mutating which could be into a more virulent strain. In addition, we need to know more about high risk groups to better prevent and advise.
The new flu has been prevalent in younger people while avoiding the elderly, which is unusual. The average age of H1N1 flu victims is in the low twenties. More than half of the victims are sixteen or younger.
It is important to continue monitoring the health of children and youths.
The symptoms of H1N1 are a fever over 100 degrees AND at least one of the following conditions: cough, sore throat, stuffy nose and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting.
It is especially important to watch for these signs in persons who have had contact with known flu victims.
The flu is spread through coughing and sneezing. Be sure to cough into a tissue or into your sleeve.
If someone is sick they should stay home. This is "voluntary isolation." If family members stay home with the sick person it is "voluntary quarantine."
To contain any communicable disease it is important that the affected people really stay home, asking others to deliver groceries or other necessities.
It is a good idea for families to plan what they would do if they are isolated or in quarantine. Is there enough food for at least a week for the family and their pets? How about medicine?
Could some of the unaffected people stay with friends or relatives? Would it be possible to work from home?
Novel H1N1 seems to be a mild flu. But even so, if it spreads widely enough, it will catch up with many vulnerable people who may become very sick and even die.
Remember that "regular" flu kills about 36,000 Americans every year. Of these, about 2,000 live in Minnesota and 15 to 20 live in Goodhue County.
Hopefully the last chapter in this book will provide information about Novel H1N1 and what vaccine to get. But there is a possibility we are only in the prologue to the story of this influenza.
In the notable pandemic of 1918, the flu appeared in a mild form in the spring and returned as a killer in the fall. Work has begun on an H1N1 flu vaccine that we hope will be ready in about six months to help protect the public should this flu return.
In the meantime, follow the simple guidelines from CDC to stay as healthy as possible. Cover your cough, wash your hands often or use antibacterial gel, avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, and stay home if you are ill.
Karen Main is the Goodhue County Public Health Service director.