After months of warnings, swine flu pandemic is starting to hit North America Print E-mail
By Staff and Wire Reports   
Sunday, 27 September 2009 01:20

After months of warnings and frantic preparations, the swine flu pandemic is starting to be felt, as doctors, health clinics, hospitals and schools are reporting rapidly increasing numbers of patients experiencing flu symptoms.

In Canada, three Canadian provinces have delayed their seasonal flu vaccination programs for most residents, citing studies that link the vaccine to H1N1 swine flu.

Preliminary Canadian research suggests people who have had seasonal flu shots could be at a greater risk of catching swine flu.

Health officials were examining the studies' results.

Researchers said this week that their preliminary studies, which have not been published or peer-reviewed, suggest people who had received a seasonal flu vaccine in the past were twice as likely to get the H1N1 virus, according to media reports.

Responsibility for seasonal flu vaccinations falls to the provinces, while the federal government has taken the lead against the H1N1 pandemic virus.

Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief public health officer,  said he personally will be getting both the seasonal and pandemic flu vaccines as soon as they're ready.

"(A link between the two) is all speculative," he said.

On Thursday, Ontario became the first province to delay seasonal flu vaccines and will only provide those shots ahead of an H1N1 vaccination to people over 65, who are seen being at a higher risk.

Seasonal flu vaccine will be available to the rest of the province after the H1N1 flu vaccination, starting in November.

The provinces of Quebec and Saskatchewan took similar steps on Friday.

The H1N1 flu pandemic has killed 78 people thus far in Canada and deaths by flu at this time of year are highly unusual.

Saturday's Washington Post is reporting that with the H1N1 pandemic spreading rapidly, hundreds of thousands of doctors, nurses, orderlies and other U.S. health-care workers for the first time are being required to get flu shots, drawing praise from many public-health authorities but condemnation from some employees, unions and other critics who object to mandatory vaccination.

Critics say the decision to get vaccinated should remain individual, especially for the swine flu vaccine, which was rushed into production to try to blunt the pandemic's second wave.

"I don't want to be a guinea pig," said Orne Banks-Hopkins, 55, a clerical worker at Washington Hospital Center. "I don't think I should be forced to take something I don't want to take."

Some doctors and nurses in Britain have also expressed resistance to getting the swine flu vaccine. A survey of 1,500 British nurses conducted in August by the Nursing Times found that one-third would not get the vaccine because of safety concerns.

In the United States, the drive is fueling anti-government sentiment and rumors on the Internet and elsewhere that the vaccine may become compulsory for everyone.

"You start with health-care workers but then expand that umbrella to make it mandatory for everybody," said Lori Price of Citizens for Legitimate Government, a Bristol, Conn.-based group that opposes government expansion. "It's all part of an encroachment on our liberties."

While the federal government plans to buy enough swine flu vaccine for every American, it will remain strictly voluntary for the average citizen, according to federal, state and local officials.

The Washington Post is also reporting that even though it's still not flu-season, hospitals in the U.S. are being flooded with cases of H1N1.

In Austin, so many parents are rushing their children to the Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas with swine flu symptoms that the hospital had to set up tents in the parking lot to cope with the onslaught.

In Memphis, the Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center emergency room got so crowded with feverish, miserable youngsters that it had to do the same thing.

And in Manning, S.C., a private school where an 11-year-old girl died shut down after the number of students who were out sick with similar symptoms reached nearly a third of the student body.

"It just kind of snowballed," said Kim Jordan, a teacher at the Laurence Manning Academy, which closed Wednesday after Ashlie Pipkin died, and the number of ill students hit 287. "We had several teachers out also. That was the reason to close the school -- so everyone could just be away from one another for a few days."

"H1N1 is spreading widely throughout the U.S.," said Thomas R. Frieden, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta during a briefing on Friday. At least 26 states, including Maryland and Virginia, are now reporting widespread flu activity, up from 21 a week earlier, the CDC reported. "H1N1 activity is now widespread," Frieden said.

Officials say the number of people seeking treatment for the flu is unprecedented for this time of year.

Despite new federal guidelines aimed at keeping schools open, the pandemic has already prompted scattered school closings around the country in recent weeks, including 42 schools that closed in eight states on Friday, affecting more than 16,000 students.

Many colleges and universities have been hit particularly hard, forcing some to open separate dorms for sick students. Ninety-one percent of the 267 colleges and universities being surveyed by the American College Health Association are now reporting cases.

At the Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center, the number of patients coming in each day shot up from about 180 to a peak of more than 400, prompting officials to erect a 2,500-square foot tent in the parking lot to handle the surge. More than 300 patients are still coming in every day.

Swine flu, also known as H1N1, tends to strike more younger people than the usual seasonal flu.

At the Dell Children's Medical Center, the number of patients coming in each day shot up from about 180 to more than 340, prompting the hospital to require staff to work extra shifts and erect two tents outside the emergency room to handle the overflow and keep possibly infected patients separate from others.

Individual doctors' offices are also reporting a surge of patients in many parts of the country.

"We're completely swamped," said Ari Brown, an Austin pediatrician whose office had to call in extra nurses to handle the volume of patients. "It's been extraordinarily busy. We have a small parking lot to begin with. People now are circulating the neighborhood to try to find a place to park and the waiting room is completely packed."

Unless patients are seriously ill or have other conditions that put them at risk, Brown and other doctors say they tell parents to take their children home, give them Motrin or Tylenol for their fevers, headaches and body aches, and lots of fluids, and wait it out. Some doctors report that children tend to recover within about four days, a day or two shorter than with the typical flu.

Nevertheless, "people are so worried about this," Brown said. "There's clearly a certain level of hysteria."

At the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, some children have gotten so sick that they have required intensive care, and that includes some children with no other health problems.

"We have some very sick children," said Ina Stephens, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the hospital. "I'm concerned it's just the tip of the iceberg -- that we're just seeing the beginning of it."

(Editing by Rob Wilson for Reuters US Online Report Health News)

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