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Doctors see increase in H1N1 flu cases

Novel H1N1 flu, also known as the “swine flu,” has made its way to Covington County, but local medical professionals caution not to overreact to the frenzy surrounding the new strain of influenza.

“Every day, I see around 10-15 patients with flu-like symptoms,” said Dr. Bhagwan Bang, pediatrician at South Alabama Pediatrics in Opp. “Some of them have turned positive (for H1N1); it’s widespread now. But what I think is happening, personally, is there is more panic being created.

“There are some isolated cases where it has turned serious, but the majority of H1N1 cases are mild and no worse than the seasonal flu.”

Bang said a major problem with the H1N1 flu hysteria is that a large number of his patients have requested tests for H1N1 flu, but there is only a limited supply of testing equipment available.

“We only have a limited capacity for testing,” he said. “If we test everybody, then we may not have enough testing supply for the people who really need to be worried about getting the flu — people like pregnant mothers and people who are in the hospital.”

Dr. Charles Eldridge, pediatrician at Covington Pediatrics, said he has seen 5-10 cases of positive type A flu in his office each day this week. Type A flu can either be seasonal flu, or the new H1N1 flu.

“If you test positive for type A flu, the only way to know if it’s H1N1 or just seasonal flu is to have a special test that is then sent to the state lab,” he said. “But you can’t get results from that test for at least seven to 10 days, so by then the patient is either really sick or is getting better.

“I would say the majority of tests we’ve sent to the state have returned as positive for novel H1N1 flu. However, in its current form, this strain of flu is usually no less severe than the normal seasonal flu.”

Because the flu strain has shown a propensity to infect children, local school administrators are especially taking precautions in anticipation of the flu’s spreading.

Andalusia Superintendent Dr. Beverly McAnulty said the school system has seen more flu-related absences this year than it has in previous years, although it’s not clear if any of those absent students have H1N1 flu.

“We have taken extreme measures over the last year in preparation for this new flu,” she said. “We have reminders all over our schools concerning proper hand washing, correct coughing procedures and that sort of thing. We have also had special meetings this year with our bus drivers and our janitors, concerning hygiene practices and their roles.”

Opp Superintendent Michael Smithart said his system had a 14 percent absentee rate Thursday, and said the most important thing is for any sick children to stay at home.

“We are asking any students experiencing flu symptoms to stay at home until they subside,” he said. “We are instructing our students and staff to follow the precautions recommended by the Alabama Department of Public Health.”

Although Smithart acknowledged the 14 percent rate is higher than normal, he added the schools are nowhere near the point where they would be shut down. The state health department has suggested that school closures may be used to prevent additional spreading of H1N1 flu.

“We are not near that point,” he said. “There is no real ‘magic number’ we are looking at, in order to make that decision. What we are doing is constantly monitoring the situation, and we’ll make those decisions at the appropriate time.”

Bang said he has also seen a problem with too many patients asking for Tamiflu, which he said is not always effective in fighting the new strain. In addition, over-prescription of Tamiflu could cause the virus to develop an immunity to the drug over time.

“I have seen people panicking and asking for the Tamiflu, and then they take too much and end up vomiting,” he said. “I’ve seen people who get the Tamiflu and then they keep it at home and take some any time they get a cough or a sneeze. I think that’s inappropriate.

“In fact, the Tamiflu doesn’t prevent complications, it just reduces the fever for one day. We should not jump on (Tamiflu) too much.”

Bang said one of the most important things for any flu victim is to be fever free for at least 24 hours — without the use of fever-reducing medications — before returning to school or work.

Scientists are currently working on creating a vaccine for the H1N1 strain, and it is likely the inoculation will be administered at schools. Both McAnulty and Smithart said their schools will be available as vaccination sites, and they are working together with the state health department to keep up to date on the latest news.