Is the H1N1 flu scare over?
It has been over a month since the end of major news reporting about the so called “Swine flu” — a strain of flu more properly identified as H1N1.
Just because CNN and other big name news outlets have stopped reporting about the H1N1 virus does not mean that the danger has passed. Remember that the “Spanish flu” incident in the 1930s started out very mild in the spring time before becoming a full fledged epidemic later that year, during the more traditional flu season.
In fact, President Obama spoke with governors and medical officials at a “swine flu” summit on Thursday, bringing the H1N1 virus back into the media’s attention. Is this fear mongering? What does the President know that we don’t?
For starters, the H1N1 flu strain is far from dead. Just two weeks ago, Danish officials announced that a strain of H1N1 found in Denmark is completely resistant to the front line drug against H1N1 — tamiflu. After the announcement in Denmark, officials in Spain and England verified that they, too, had difficulty treating some cases with tamiflu. The problem? The world has stocked up on supplies of tamiflu as a first defense against a possible outbreak.
President Obama’s speech to governors and health professionals at the recent swine flu preparedness summit tried to calm fears about a potentially larger outbreak of the swine flu this fall. Obama started by saying that he expects “rigorous planning” by the attendees of the summit in order to prepare for that potential outbreak.
Kathleen Sebelius, the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services, says researchers who spoke to her have warned of the potential impact of a broader H1N1 virus scare. “We want to make sure we aren’t promoting panic, but we are promoting vigilance and preparation,” Sebelius said.
Obama spoke to the group via a remote link from Italy, where the President is attending the G-8 meeting of major industrialized nations. Obama practically pleaded with state and local health officials, including those responsible for school district health care, to prepare for what he calls a “vaccination campaign” this coming fall. Obama said the information presented to him suggests that schools could be largely affected, and may be the source of a wider outbreak.
The swine flu preparedness sessions, held at the National Institutes of Health, is being attended in person by Kathleen Sebelius, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and National Security Adviser John Brennan. In a statement released this morning, Sebelius said that the goal of the summit is to launch “a national influenza campaign by bringing federal, state and local officials, emergency managers, educators and others together with the nation’s public health experts”. Sebelius emphasized the need for Americans to work together to develop pandemic plans, or to revamp plans currently on the books. The goal of the summit? To share lessons learned in the past, and to educate officials about the “best practices during the spring and summer H1N1 wave”, what worked and what didn’t.
Commonly called “swine flu”, the virus is also known as Influenza A or the more common H1N1. This past June 11, the global outbreak of Influenza A was labelled a “pandemic” by The World Health Organization.
Before President Obama spoke, Kathleen Sebelius said some H1N1 vaccine should be available for distribution starting in the middle of this coming October.
Though a vaccine is in the works, health care officials are concerned that a “candidate vaccine”, or one that can be put to use safely in humans, may not even be ready for testing until early August. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also spoke at the meeting, and expressed his concern that an early August completion date may be catastrophic. Fauci’s suggestion, that more time is needed to test a vaccine that could be used on tens of millions of patients, was probably the most terrifying aspect of the summit.
Still, the White House is acting early. This summit was convened several months before the start of flu season. President Obama has pulled out all of the stops for this summit, inviting some of his top aides and cabinet members, and speaking personally during a busy time for him, his first G-8 summit.
Though the H1N1 virus does continue to circulate in the United States (and 120 other countries around the world), the current outbreak may be nothing compared to this coming fall. Consider this next flu season “a perfect storm” for Influenza A — a nasty new strain of flu that is potentially deadly combined with the traditionally difficult flu season.
How many cases of Influenza A are we dealing with in America? According to Sebelius, there are currently more than 34,000 confirmed and probable cases of the virus in the United States, and these cases led to an unconfirmed 170 deaths. This information was given to Sebelius by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Worldwide, according to the CDC, there have been over 100,000 cases confirmed, and the swine flu is being held responsible for nearly 500 deaths. Why is this particular strain of flu so deadly? The virus has bucked traditional “flu outbreak patterns” — the typical routes that lead to sickness. In general, Influenza is more active during the winter months, slowing up when the weather gets warm. Swine flu has not lived up to the flu’s typical patterns in that respect.