The continued spread of H1N1 influenza virus this spring is cause to pay heed to upper-respiratory maladies such as congestion, runny nose and cough, says David Kimberlin, MD, an influenza specialist who co-directs the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases.
Those respiratory symptoms can be caused by seasonal allergies or non-viral medical issues; however, if the illness feels like a severe cold or flu and respiratory symptoms are accompanied by a high or persistent fever, a call to the doctor’s office is warranted for medical advice about antiviral drugs or other treatments, Kimberlin says.
Kimberlin, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases, advises the federal panel that recently updated the guidelines for childhood and teen immunizations to include H1N1 vaccine.
“We consistently have seen symptoms of fever, congestion, runny nose and cough in H1N1 patients,” Kimberlin says. “If you or someone you care for has a fever plus one of those symptoms it is cause for concern, especially when we know this virus is circulating and perhaps increasing in the number of people it infects.”
Health officials are carefully monitoring a steady stream in the Southeast of cases of pandemic H1N1 flu, especially in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina – the three states reporting regional flu activity.
Local flu activity is reported in Puerto Rico and seven states: Arkansas, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Overall rates of flu illness are much lower than reported in fall 2009.
Kimberlin encourages those who have not yet gotten their H1N1 flu shot to do so. The vaccine is widely available throughout the United States at doctors’ offices, health departments and pharmacies.
The flu concern in the Southeast is the 2009 H1N1 pandemic strain; primarily it is causing serious illness in adults with underlying health conditions and in young children. Educating the public and emphasizing the need for repeated hand-sanitizer use and disinfectant spray helps control its spread, Kimberlin says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 60 million Americans have been infected by the virus, more than 265,000 have needed inpatient hospital care and nearly 12,000 have died.
The H1N1 fatality numbers are lower than the usual 30,000-plus U.S. deaths attributed to seasonal flu annually, which may reflect the success of the vaccination effort to date, Kimberlin says. The newest flu deaths primarily are occurring in people younger than age 65, where the H1N1 death rate is five times higher than the seasonal rate, he says.