Last week, the Center for Disease Control announced it will no longer report new H1N1 cases (the virus formerly known as swine flu) on a local level anymore, and will switch to state-level reports - the same way that seasonal flu is reported.
While that bit of news might seem confusing, it marks an important change in how H1N1 is viewed by public health professionals. County-level reporting is for surveillance purposes, monitoring how and where a disease is spreading, the less specific reporting signals that H1N1 has established itself, and won't be going away anytime soon.
"It's here. We know it's here," says Sally Silbermann, the Public Relations Information Manager for the Coastal Health District, an eight-county amalgamation that includes Chatham, Effingham, Glynn, and Bryan among others. "It's going to be our job to continue making people aware that it's here and to take precautions."
By the start of the summer, our area hadn't had any confirmed cases of the virus, but in the last several weeks, the Coastal District had 10 confirmed cases, and that number could increase again after a recently confirmed outbreak at a summer camp in Summerton, SC.
While 10 cases may not seem like many, it isn't indicative of the problem as a whole. "The way that we have reported H1N1 has presented a false sense of security," explains Dr. Diane Weems, the Chief Medical Officer for the Chatham County Health Department. "We know we had many more cases than that, but because the testing is for surveillance purposes, not diagnostic, most people who had influenza-like virus, were not tested specifically for H1N1."
State-level reporting will hopefully lead to a more complete picture of how prevalent the disease is, and focus more on diagnostics. It will be an uphill battle though because the symptoms of H1N1 are almost identical to those associated with seasonal flu.
While the virus, whose proper name is ‘novel H1N1 A,' has received a lot of media attention recently, the perennial seasonal flu remains more deadly. However, the new H1N1 strain has the potential to mutate into something more serious, similar to the threat presented by Avian flu several years ago, which is why health officials are so concerned about it.
"We hope that H1N1 doesn't change to cause more severe disease, but it could. And we have no idea what kind of flu season we're going to have this year," says Weems.
Currently the county's Health Department is working on developing a plan for vaccinations prior to the onset of flu season, although there is still no definite date for the arrival of the H1N1 vaccine, which is still being developed under the supervision of the federal government.
"We've been told we could expect it as early as October, but we have no set date at this point," says Weems. "We're making plans for how we're going to reach the target population when vaccine does become available, and at the same time, planning our seasonal vaccination clinics."
The priority groups for H1N1 vaccinations are slightly different than those for seasonal flu vaccines, and the Health Department is most focused on getting H1N1 vaccines to pregnant women, and children ages six months to 18 years old as well as people with increased risks such as chronic underlying health issues.
Because of the recent series of outbreaks at summer camps, officials are also very concerned about the start of the school year, and what that could mean for the spread of the virus.
"Many of our illnesses, because of the habits of children, tend be spread best in a setting where children congregate, and that's our schools," Weems explains.
Along with vaccinations, the best method of preventing the spread of the disease to take small, but significant measures including thoroughly washing hands, covering sneezes and coughs, and being sure to stay home when you're sick.
"Most of us don't do that. We feel compelled to come to the office or send our kids to school," says Weems. "We want you stay home if you're ill, but then businesses and schools need to support that behavior."
For more information on preparing for and preventing H1N1 visit www.health.state.ga.us/h1n1flu and www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu