Many cases in the Northeast; health-care workers urged to take greater precautions
THURSDAY, June 18 (HealthDay News) -- While flu season is usually over by now, the new H1N1 swine flu continues to spread in some parts of the country, especially in the Northeast, U.S. health officials said Thursday.
"The U.S. will likely see [swine] flu activity continue throughout the summer," Dr. Daniel Jernigan, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Influenza Division, said during a press conference.
The virus' spread has slowed in most parts of the country, Jernigan said, but new cases continue to be seen at higher rates in New York and Massachusetts, with more than 1,000 confirmed and probable cases in each state.
There have been more than 17,800 confirmed cases of the H1N1 flu in the United States, including about 1,600 people who've been hospitalized and 44 people who have died. Based on these numbers, the CDC estimates that about 7 percent of people in areas currently experiencing an outbreak have flu symptoms, Jernigan said.
The previously-undiscovered flu, which first surfaced in April, continues to produce relatively mild symptoms, with patients recovering fairly quickly, officials said.
Still, health-care workers need to do more to protect themselves from infection by the virus. A small sample of 26 health-care workers found that half became infected while at work, according to a report in the June 19 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
"This includes one case where the exposure was to another ill health-care person," Dr. Michael Bell, the CDC's associate director for infection control, said during Thursday's press conference.
Bell said infection-control procedures need to be taken seriously. A first step is to quickly identify flu patients when they come into a hospital. "This is essential. Consistent application of precautions is important to make sure that there isn't occupational exposure," he said.
Precautions should also include isolating H1N1 swine flu patients in single rooms. And health-care personnel should use gloves, respirators, gowns and eye protection while in a patient's room. Hand-washing should also be practiced, Bell said.
Health-care personnel also should stay home if they have the flu, Bell said. Not only does this prevent spreading the infection to other workers, "but more importantly, you are not going to be spreading infection to patients who can be much more fragile," he said.
Bell reiterated that the H1N1 swine flu continues to produce relatively mild symptoms in patients, and much has been learned about the precautions that health-care workers need to take since the virus first surfaced in April. "These lessons need to be applied so if something worse comes around we will be prepared to deal with it safely," he said.
Earlier this week, scientists in Brazil said they'd discovered a new strain of the swine flu virus, according to published reports. But it's not yet clear if the strain is any more dangerous than the original strain that first surfaced in Mexico in April and has since swept the globe.
The scientists discovered the new strain in a patient who had been hospitalized in Sao Paulo in April. The 26-year-old man, who came down with flu symptoms after returning from Mexico, has made a full recovery, Fox News reported.
Health officials are closely monitoring the H1N1 swine flu virus as it migrates from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere, where the flu season is now under way. While the swine flu doesn't yet seem any more lethal than the regular flu that each winter kills 36,000 people in the United States alone, scientists fear it could mutate as it circulates around the world, becoming more virulent and posing a greater health threat.
Nearly 40,000 people in 76 countries have been infected with the H1N1 virus, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization, causing 167 deaths. The vast majority of those deaths -- 108 -- have occurred in Mexico, according to the agency.
The WHO last week formally declared a pandemic, triggered by the rapid spread of the H1N1 virus across North America, Australia, South America, Europe and regions beyond.
What makes the H1N1 strain different from the typical seasonal flu is that about half of the people killed worldwide were young and previously healthy. In contrast, regular forms of the seasonal flu typically prove most lethal to the very young and the elderly.
Given that trend, school children in the United States could be among the first to receive a swine flu vaccine this fall, if federal health officials decide to pursue a widespread inoculation program. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Tuesday that she was urging school superintendents around the country to prepare for that possibility, the Associated Press reported.
"If you think about vaccinating kids, schools are the logical place," Sebelius told the news service.
Last week, European drug maker Novartis AG announced that it had successfully produced the first batch of H1N1 swine flu vaccine, weeks earlier than had been expected. The shortened production schedule was made possible because the vaccine was produced in cells, rather than the egg-based method typically used for vaccines, the company said.
According to the AP, Novartis said it was using this first batch for evaluation and testing, prior to its use in people, and it was also being considered for use in clinical trials. Millions of doses of the vaccine might be produced weekly, the company said. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had already placed a $289 million order for swine flu vaccine with Novartis in May, the AP said.
For more on swine flu, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SOURCES: June 18, 2009, teleconference with Daniel Jernigan, M.D., medical epidemiologist, Influenza Division, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Michael Bell, M.D., associate director for infection control, Division of Healthcare and Quality Promotion, National Center for Preparedness, Detection and Control of Infectious Diseases, CDC; Fox News; Associated Press
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