Updated January 25 at 4:55pm

Flu deaths raise fears of pandemic

By Richard Asinof
Contributing Writer
The rapid spread of H7N9 flu throughout China and with it, fears of a potential global pandemic, has Rhode Island health officials examining protocols and plans, in case the deadly flu spreads to the U.S. More

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HEALTH CARE

Flu deaths raise fears of pandemic

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The rapid spread of H7N9 flu throughout China and with it, fears of a potential global pandemic, has Rhode Island health officials examining protocols and plans, in case the deadly flu spreads to the U.S.

As of April 23, there were at least 108 confirmed cases of the H7N9 flu – and 22 deaths, according to Chinese health authorities. Taiwan last week also confirmed a case of the bird-flu infection.

“We met with the key operational groups last week to discuss some initial messaging and strategies we should be prepared to implement,” said Peter Hanney, spokesman for the R.I. Department of Health. “We have participated in numerous national conference calls to provide us with situational updates and what those at [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] are doing.”

The health department maintains a “Pandemic Influenza Plan” to ensure an effective response if and when a pandemic occurs, according to Hanney. “We stockpile antivirals and medical supplies that may be used in a pandemic, test and refine plans so that we are prepared to distribute vaccines as they become available, and work with hospitals and health centers to plan for patient surge and alternate care sites,” he said.

The plan, Hanney continued, “kicks in when sustained human-to-human transmission of a novel flu strain occurs. We take our guidance from the [World Health Organization] and CDC when this happens, so it is not activated now.”

Chinese health authorities have claimed that there has not been any human-to-human transmission, despite the wide geographic range of flu cases. However, the World Health Organization is now saying that limited human-to-human transmission of H7N9 flu in China may be possible.

And, analysis by researchers at the University of Hong Kong has shown that twice as many adults may have been infected with milder infections, according to Benjamin Cowling, an associate professor at the university’s public health center. The researchers’ analysis suggests risk of illness from the H7N9 virus rises with age, with more than half of reported victims age 60 and older, Cowling told Bloomberg News on April 22.

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