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Flu-like illnesses now higher than at peak of seasonal flu season

Federal officials report 8,200 hospitalizations for infections from the H1N1 virus, and 411 deaths. But they backed away from earlier reports of 1 in 5 kids being infected.

October 24, 2009|Thomas H. Maugh II

Influenza-like illnesses are now higher throughout the country than levels generally seen at the peak of the seasonal flu season, federal health officials said Friday. But they dismissed media reports from a day earlier that 1 in 5 children had contracted swine flu during the first weeks of October.

Pandemic H1N1 influenza activity continues to spread throughout the country, with 46 states reporting widespread activity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Since Aug. 30, there have been 8,200 hospitalizations from laboratory-confirmed infections caused by the swine flu virus and 411 deaths in the United States. That brings the totals since the outbreak of the pandemic in April to more than 20,000 hospitalizations and more than 1,000 deaths.

There were 11 new pediatric deaths in the week ending Oct. 17, bringing the total since April to 102. In a typical flu season, there are 40 to 50 deaths among children.

Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the CDC director, said that media reports on Thursday that one-fifth of the nation's children had contracted swine flu early in the month were a misinterpretation of the data and that the numbers were undoubtedly much lower.

That data was from a CDC-conducted telephone survey of 14,000 randomly selected households. Residents were asked whether they had influenza-like symptoms from Oct. 1 to Oct. 11. The researchers found that 1 in 5 children and 7% of adults had such symptoms, but no effort was made to confirm the nature of the illnesses.

Frieden said that although infection rates of 1 in 5 children have been observed in some communities during the peaks of infection, it is likely that the majority of children in the survey simply suffered from colds and sniffles.

"The data simply show that kids get a lot of infections," he said.

As for the swine flu vaccine, which has been slower in arriving than federal authorities had expected, Frieden said that 16.1 million doses are now available and that at least 11.3 million of them had been shipped as of Wednesday, an increase of 5.4 million doses from the previous week. He said a lot more doses would be available soon, but he refused to predict how many and when. "We've had difficulties with projections so far," he said.

"Vaccine production is much less predictable than we would wish," he added. "We are nowhere near where we thought we would be by now, or where the manufacturers had predicted we would be. Vaccination is our strongest tool, and not having enough of it is enormously frustrating."

Nicole Lurie, Health and Human Services assistant secretary for preparedness and response, did make a prediction, saying Friday that the U.S. should expect to have 42 million doses by mid-November, about 8 million fewer than earlier estimates.

One of the five vaccine manufacturers, Sanofi Pasteur, said Friday that its vaccine production was back on track and that it expected to ship ingredients for 75.3 million doses of swine flu vaccine to the CDC by December. The company said it had shipped 12 million of the 16.1 million doses the government had already received.

Frieden said that the severity of the swine flu virus remained about the same as it was in the spring, and that it is generally comparable to that of the seasonal flu.

But the ethnic composition of victims is changing somewhat, Lyn Finelli, head of flu surveillance at the CDC, said at a meeting Thursday. During the spring, Latinos had a disproportionately high number of infections, presumably because of contact with people returning from Mexico, where the virus is thought to have originated.

This fall, the proportion of Latinos affected has declined, and the number of African Americans infected has grown for reasons that are not clear.

There has been some concern that swine flu is especially severe among Native Americans, but so far the CDC has received reports of only two deaths among that group, Finelli said.

Some researchers fear that states are not fully reporting such deaths, however.

The World Health Organization also reported Friday that there have been 4,999 swine flu deaths through Oct. 18, up 264 from the week before. Because most countries have stopped counting individual flu cases, however, that number is likely to be an underestimate, the agency said.


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