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CDC to Chicago Media: H1N1 Outbreaks May Be Ebbing But Stay Vigilant

New America Media, News report, Khalil Abdullah Posted: Dec 12, 2009

CHICAGO Since H1N1 was first reported in April, three times as many African Americans and Latinos have been hospitalized with swine flu in Illinois than non-Hispanic whites, according to data compiled by the Illinois Department of Public Health. Thats a considerable difference, acknowledged Dr. Craig Conover, medical director of the departments Division of Infectious Diseases.

As of Dec. 4, Illinois has had 2,187 lab-confirmed H1N1 hospitalizations and 67 deaths. The states death rate tracks along similar lines -- though at only twice that of non-Hispanic whites -- for the same two ethnic groups. For all the concern about the immature immune systems of children or the deteriorating ones of the elderly, 26 individuals, or more than one-third of Illinoiss H1N1 deaths, were adults between the ages of 26 and 49, the largest cohort.

Dr. Felipe Lobelo, an epidemic intelligence service officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted, Hispanics and African Americans have high rates of chronic diseases, like asthma and diabetes. Those diseases can weaken the bodys immune system, leaving a person more susceptible to H1N1 and to the seasonal flu as well.

Lobelo joined Conover and other health professionals on a panel convened by the CDC in collaboration with New America Media. The Dec. 4 discussion was the last in a series of CDC-NAM H1N1 briefings this year held specifically for ethnic media in eight U.S. cities.

Dr. Tyra Bryant-Stephens, medical director of the Community Asthma Prevention Program at the Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia, explained that the flu is not the common cold. It is a serious disease, she said, and it is opportunistic. Individuals affected by asthma already have inflammation of their airways, a potentially dangerous pre-condition for diseases like the flu to attack the bodys respiratory system. She noted that asthma is especially prevalent in urban American communities where African Americans and Hispanics often reside.

One out of four [urban children] have asthma, Bryant-Stephens said.

Panel members also noted that lack of access to primary health care and lower vaccination rates among ethnic groups, as compared to the general population, may also be contributing factors to the striking differences in hospitalizations and deaths. Conover and other Illinois health officials said they are aggressively promoting a 311 call-in line where the public can get assistance in any language.

Each speaker emphasized the need for the public to pursue vaccinations for H1N1 and the seasonal flu.

Seasonal flu may show up this year or next year, said Capt. Raymond Strikas, a medical officer of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Vaccine Program. He said that though data show that the H1N1 outbreak may be ebbing, flu activity remains high in the United States. However, Strikas assured attendant media that the volume of H1N1 vaccine available is increasing by six to eight million doses weekly.

One reason for the initial shortage of H1N1 doses was the decision to use the traditional method of growing a safe vaccine by using chicken eggs, Strikas explained. H1N1 grew more slowly than anticipated, thus accounting for some of the production delays.

On a related note, Strikas said that health officials are closely monitoring reports of a few patients in the United States who have contracted a mutated flu strain resistant to Tamiflu. He said that other drugs are available to treat those patients and that the public needs to focus on preventative steps, including basic hygiene like hand-washing, to ward off flu infections.

As in the other seven cities where CDC-NAM briefings were held, Chicagos ethnic media asked the panel to explain the policy on vaccinations for the undocumented immigrant population. A spokesperson for Cook Countys health department, which covers the windy city and its nearby environs, said that upon administering vaccinations, we do ask where you reside, but [we] dont ask for proof of residency.

Another journalist asked if someone with a comprised immune system or someone from an at-risk population had to bring proof of their medical condition in order to receive a shot when the vaccine was being rationed. Nobody needs to bring a doctors note, answered Dr. Julie Morita, medical director for the Chicago Department of Public Healths Immunization Program.

May Ju, a producer at New Tang Dynasty Television, asked whether U.S. health officials had given any consideration to instituting a temporary quarantine period for travelers arriving in the United States from countries like China. Countries sometimes underreport infectious disease rates for reasons related to preserving a positive international image or maintaining their tourism industry, she noted.

The panel members said there is no such plan. Strikas did point out, however, that China has taken a lot of heat because of its slowness to respond and inform the world community about infectious disease outbreaks, like SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003. But he expects China to be more forthcoming in reporting to international health agencies. Strikas said it is incumbent on the United States to maintain vigorous surveillance.

With November data still pending, the CDC mid-level range estimates that there have been 3,900 H1N1-related deaths in the United States as of Oct. 17. The World Health Organization has reported more than 7,800 H1N1-related deaths worldwide from April through November. Though it may appear that the United States is ground zero for H1N1 deaths due to its high percentage of the total number of deaths worldwide, one epidemiologist cautioned that many countries simply do not have the capacity to monitor or report the disease's impact.

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