State official gives info on ‘swine flu’

Published 11:41 pm Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Area pharmacists learned the latest about the H1N1 virus, previously known as the “swine flu,” at a meeting of the Covington County Pharmacists Association in Opp Tuesday evening.

Charles Thomas, state pharmacy director for the Alabama Department of Public Health, served as the program’s speaker.

“When I accepted this invitation several months ago to come and talk to tonight, little did I know that we would be in the middle of swine flu or any other situation,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the state still has many more possible flu samples in its testing queue, and there is a high possibility there will be additional cases recorded in the state in the future. However, he explained that one advantage to the flu occurring at this time of year, is that the weather may actually lessen the virus’ ability to spread.

“This virus has a capsule surrounding it,” he said. “In the cooler months, this capsule becomes softer and is able to attach to a cell more easily. When it’s in the cell, that’s when it can replicate. If anything has saved us from this being an even more severe situation, it’s that it happened here in the hot months and it will be slower to proliferate.”

Thomas explained that the state has several characteristics it looks for before describing a flu strain as a “pandemic.” Although H1N1 is not presently characterized as a pandemic flu, it does have some of the hallmarks.

“It meets several of the prerequisites to be considered a pandemic strain,” he said. “Everybody is susceptible to it; that means, it’s a novel strain and has not been here before. Also, it seems to transmit easily between people; that’s why it has been so important to close the schools and other locations where it was found.”

Thomas said that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and private pharmaceutical companies are hard at work researching for a vaccine for this particular strain of H1N1. He explained that time is of the essence, because it is possible the flu strain could experience a resurgence during the normal flu season when the weather gets colder, starting in October.

“As I said, we lucked out because this strain started in the summertime when it’s warmer and it is less easy for it to be virulent,” he said. “I hate to say it, but stay tuned. Even the folks at the CDC have mentioned that this may very well flare back up in the fall.

“My best advice to you would be, that if they do discover a vaccine for this flu, get it as soon as you can.”

Thomas said it is also important to note that viral strains, like H1N1, are cyclical. As an example, he discussed the H5N1 virus, which made its appearance in 1997 and went away for a few years, only to show up again in 2004-05. Also, the H1N1 family of viruses has been responsible for previous outbreaks, including a worldwide flu epidemic in 1918-19.

“What this shows is that it’s not a question of if, but when,” he said. “It will reoccur in some form or another; it’s just a matter of how virulent it is and how quickly it spreads. All it takes is one person in a crowded area, and it’s like dominoes falling.

“That’s one of the reasons the CDC took this so seriously, and why the state is taking it so seriously now.”

Thomas pointed out that the best defense against H1N1 and other flu viruses is for citizens to be informed about good hygiene practices. He said that pharmacists have a special responsibility to teach their customers about washing hands and other healthy habits, because pharmacists are especially susceptible to flu strains as they work in close proximity with sick clients.

“This should be a wake-up call,” he said. “Be sure to let your patients know about washing hands, and practices like coughing into your sleeve rather than your hands. A lot of businesses now are putting in hand sanitizers, and that’s a great thing.”

He added that the common flu medicines of Tamiflu and Relenza are effective in stopping the current H1N1 strain.

More information on the H1N1 flu can be found at a variety of Web sites, including the CDC ( and the Alabama Department of Public Health (