H1N1 Infections Fall, But a New Wave Could Erupt
New America Media, News Report, Jacob Simas Posted: Jan 27, 2010
FRESNO -- Reported cases of the virus, H1N1, also known as swine flu, have declined sharply in California over the last several weeks, causing state health officials to downgrade the status of the pandemic from “widespread” to “sporadic.”
The weekly number of hospitalized and fatal H1N1 influenza cases in California dropped to 46 as of January 16, down from 796 cases during the peak of the pandemic in early November.
However, the same officials warned there is still a possibility of the virus mutating. That could result in a third wave of infections over the next several months, coinciding with the traditional flu season.
“It’s unpredictable,” said Dr. Ben Sun, an epidemiologist at the California Department of Public Health. “We don’t want to spread fear where there doesn’t need to be any, but the flu virus mutates all the time. It may cause more sickness and deaths, which is why we’re still really pushing for vaccinations.”
Sun spoke at a press briefing organized by New America Media and attended by ethnic media representatives in Fresno on January 20.
Joining Sun on the panel of speakers was Edward L. Moreno, director of the Fresno Department of Public Health, and Kevin Hamilton, director of special populations at Clinica Sierra Vista, a local health clinic.
Despite the news of a decline in statewide infections, both Moreno and Hamilton expressed concern that if another H1N1 outbreak were to occur, Fresno residents could again be disproportionately impacted.
Since the H1N1 pandemic began last April, hospitalizations due to the virus in California have occurred at a rate of 22 per 100,000 people. In Fresno, the rate is double that.
One reason for the disparity, said Hamilton, is the large number of Latino immigrants living in the area who may be less inclined to receive vaccinations due to a lack of access to health services, fear of giving out personal information to clinics or hospitals, and a lack of education about the vaccine among both residents and the local physicians who serve them.
“I’m always very suspicious when I hear the numbers [of declining infections],” said Hamilton. “We really don’t know the true infection rate because people just don’t come in to get treated.”
Latinos account for 48 percent of the Fresno population, yet they constitute 63 percent of all hospitalizations due to H1N1 in the city since the outbreak began.
Within the Latino community, it is the migrant farm workers who are particularly at risk for H1N1 infection, said Hamilton, whose organization operates clinics in the rural migrant camps surrounding Fresno.
Migrant farm workers often move in large numbers from boarding house to boarding house – called “galerias” – as they follow the seasonal crops, which are their livelihood.
In the galerias, workers often sleep in crowded quarters, which could create an ideal environment for spreading infection. “One person coughs, and it’s gonna spread,” said Hamilton.
Contributing to the risk factor, he said, is the correlation of the flu season with the typical migration patterns of farm workers in California, some of whom spend the winter holidays in their home country, then return to the central valley in late winter and early spring for the planting season.
“We expect to see more patients as folks start coming back to work,” said Hamilton.
Hamilton said the seasonal influx of workers should be accompanied by an effective education campaign to increase awareness and encourage vaccinations.
Clinica Sierra Vista is doing its part, he said, by drawing a connection between infection and farming jobs.
“People are starting to get set up in the galerias in the valley, but if they get sick, they won’t get hired to work,” he said. “That’s our outreach message.”
Due to increased supplies, the H1N1 vaccine is now available to all Californians, said Sun. In previous months, it was only made available to high-risk groups, such as children, young adults and pregnant women.
More than half of all Californians -– those who have not yet been infected or vaccinated -- are still susceptible to infection, said Dr. Sun.
He recommended people contact their health providers and local clinics to obtain information about vaccinations. Californians can also utilize the health department’s online “vaccination locater” at www.cdph.ca.gov, or call their toll-free hotline, at 1-888-865-0564, Monday through Friday.
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