April 19, 2014
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Georgia Worries About Uptick In H1N1 Cases

 

New America Media, News Report, Anthony D. Advincula, 

ATLANTA — Contrary to perception in the South and other parts of the country that H1N1 virus has already ebbed in recent months, health department officials here reported an unusual uptick in flu cases and warned that the H1N1 pandemic is far from over.

The last week of February alone saw 36 people hospitalized because of H1N1 and seasonal flu. In the first week of March the number had almost doubled, rising to 63. The victims, at least in DeKalb County, have been mostly people of color and women. As of March 4, there have been 66 seasonal flu and H1N1-related deaths in Georgia.

“The H1N1 is still here,” said Dr. Elizabeth S. Ford, district health director of Atlanta’s DeKalb County Board of Health, at an ethnic media press conference on March 4. “The local and state health agencies will continue to monitor this trend.” The press event was organized by New America Media and sponsored by AIR, a nonprofit social science research organization.

Grappling with budget cuts, a shortage of vaccines, and an insufficient public health workforce, Ford attributed the spike of H1N1 and seasonal flu fatalities in Georgia to its low vaccination rate. In DeKalb County alone, the third most populated county in the Atlanta area, only 7 percent of the population got the vaccine since the 2009 H1N1 outbreak.

“There are 760,000 residents in DeKalb County — and the population count is more than double during daytime — but less than 55,000 got vaccinated,” said Ford, adding that she was disappointed that the vaccines arrived late. 

When the virus hit the country and peaked around June 2009, vaccines ran out and the federal government identified states by priority. While Georgia got the first shipments of H1N1 vaccine in mid-October, many people took the wait-and-see approach, trying to ascertain how the new vaccine affected people before taking it themselves.

“When we get out there, we’re really struggling. Everyone in the state is asking the federal government for the same funding,” Ford added.

Although no conclusive investigation has made an association between the deaths and race and gender, health officials here believe that minorities and women are considerably more vulnerable and at higher risk due to lack of health insurance and access to better health services.

Amid the enormous challenges in getting a majority of residents vaccinated, DeKalb County health officials have given their H1N1 awareness effort a grade of A, but B for messaging and sending the information out to the public, caregivers and infrastructure partners, and C+ for their mass vaccination effort.

“The economic situation has affected public health tremendously,” said Dr. Patrick O’Neal, chief of Emergency Preparedness and Response Division of Georgia Department of Community Health. 

Because of the unstable economy, he pointed out that many public health workers are searching for a more stable job by moving to a federal health agency, like the CDC. “Our workforce is essentially lured to a higher pay scale. We’ve lost a large number of workers to the CDC.”

But O’Neal is concerned more about the possible third wave of H1N1 pandemic than the economic constraints. With re-assortment of the virus, which is very likely to happen, as was reported earlier this year in Hong Kong, he said that any genetic mutation of H1N1 is far more dangerous, as the virus could develop a new strain.

“If the case in Hong Kong will be found to be a re-assorted virus, then the global H1N1 pandemic remains very active,” O’Neal said after the press briefing. “That creates the next wave of the virus.”

The only way that the virus will be curbed, he added, is when 90 percent of the population gets protected through vaccination, or has been exposed to the same H1N1 strain before and thus becomes immune to its ill effects. 

Historically, the United States was able to successfully eliminate through vaccination some serious viral illnesses, such as polio and typhoid fever. But many people still believe that the H1N1 virus is very unstable — and certainly different from a uniform virus that causes polio and typhoid fever. Skeptics also say that H1N1, like any influenza virus, mutates and therefore no one-size-fits-all vaccination can prevent it. 

“It is a usual spin for people who have not been vaccinated to ask, ‘If H1N1 is more fatal than any other flu virus, then how come nothing really happens to us?’ That’s the problem right there,” said Pam Jones, AIR media associate, adding that many Georgians are still wary of getting the H1N1 vaccine.

Even though H1N1 may be low and flat right now, come flu season it could rise again,” O’Neal said. “It is clear that the virus still exists.”



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