Confirmed cases of H1N1 flu virus reported in Gunnison area

Health officials not surprised

It may not create attention-grabbing headlines anymore, but the potentially deadly H1N1 Swine Flu is still causing problems around the world and there are three confirmed cases in local hospitals.



The virus was recently designated a pandemic by the World Health Organization, which means it has now spread to every corner of the globe. The pandemic designation is not related to the severity of the illness or the number of deaths it has caused, only its geographic distribution.
The Gunnison County Public Health department issued a press release on July 23 indicating there have been three cases of H1N1 confirmed “locally.”
The weekly report on H1N1 cases issued by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment indicates that there have been 171 confirmed cases of the virus across the state since April 27, 2009. However, the report for the week of July 18 shows no confirmed cases in Gunnison County. CDPHE public information officer Mark Salley says he was not aware of any confirmed cases in Gunnison County for the week ending on July 25, either.
There have been three confirmed cases on H1N1 in nearby Hinsdale County; one of those cases was confirmed in mid-July. There are two confirmed cases in Pitkin County, but no cases in Saguache, Montrose, or Delta counties.
County health officials were reluctant to discuss any details about the age, sex or city of residence of the people who were diagnosed with H1N1 “locally.” However officials say it’s not surprising that the virus has appeared in Gunnison County. According to Gunnison County public health educator Margaret Wacker, “Local health officials are not surprised to have positive cases of H1N1 influenza identified locally. The identification of three confirmed cases does not change how Gunnison County is responding to the pandemic. However, it does bring home the fact that H1N1 virus is active in our community and people should be taking action to prevent the spread of the virus.”
Although H1N1 was initially thought to be much more dangerous than the traditional influenza virus, scientists around the world now believe it is not as dangerous as it was considered earlier this spring.
“So far the H1N1 virus has been thought to cause illness in much the same way as seasonal influenza. It can cause a spectrum of illness anywhere from mild to severe,” Wacker says.
But being only as dangerous as seasonal influenza still makes H1N1 a serious threat. A recent report by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that, without a proper vaccine, as many as 40 percent of Americans could get swine flu this year and several hundred thousand could die. An estimated 300 Americans have already died because of H1N1.
The most recent influenza pandemic was in 1957, killing nearly 70,000 people in the United States.
Scientists have been rapidly pursuing the development of a vaccine against swine flu, which is considered a hybrid of the regular seasonal influenza, mixed with elements of influenza viruses normally specific to chickens or pigs. Swine flu vaccines are expected to be in mass production in September, although the current forms of the vaccine have not been proven effective across a large population base.
Wacker also says there could be a lot of local H1N1 illnesses going under the radar. “We do not have the resources, nor is it necessary, to test every person who is experiencing flu-like symptoms. Testing should be reserved for people who are very sick, typically those who are admitted to the hospital for a severe febrile respiratory illness,” she says.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says unless a person is considered “at risk,” there is no need to get tested for H1N1, even if the person is experiencing flu symptoms.
CDPHE considerers “at risk” individuals to include children under the age of five (particularly those under the age of two), adults age 65 and older, pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions.
According to the CDPHE website, “Persons with uncomplicated influenza-like illness who are not at high risk for influenza complications do not need to be seen by a health care provider and do not need to be tested for H1N1.”
Gunnison County has a Pandemic Response Preparedness Committee to deal with issues such as swine flu, should the virus become a severe problem locally.
When concerns about swine flu were extremely high back in April, the county’s Pandemic Response Preparedness Committee formed into an Incident Command System, which monitored the activity of the disease internationally, nationally, in Colorado, and locally.
The Command System was set up to direct local actions to prevent further spread of the illness, secure emergency supplies of antiviral medications from the Strategic National Stockpile, and maintain communication with the public and state officials and health care providers.
The Command System was closed when concerns about swine flu began to recede, but the Pandemic Response Committee is still active. Gunnison County emergency manager Scott Morrill says the committee will meet this week to discuss the current influenza situation in Gunnison County.
“One of the things we’ll be addressing is how to prepare for this fall, should the flu come back stronger or weaker,” Morrill says.
Wacker says, “All influenza viruses have the potential to mutate. The concern with the H1N1 virus is that it could mutate into a more deadly form. Historically, the deadly influenza epidemics had a mild springtime wave of activity, followed by a much more deadly wave in the fall. The concern is that this H1N1 outbreak could follow in the same pattern.”
Should that happen, Morrill says, it would take little time to reorganize the command system, educate the public about the dangers of the virus and provide assistance to local governments. “A lot of those pieces are already in place,” Morrill says.
But with a proven swine flu vaccine still yet to be developed, the best way to prevent the disease is still the old-fashioned way—by washing your hands and covering your nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing.

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