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Local officials: No panic in flu pandemic

BY KURT CUNNINGHAM | JUNE 16, 2009 7:11 AM

For five days, UI junior Rachel Hirsh stayed in her home. She took the medicine doctors prescribed and rested. And just as seasonal flu comes and goes, the fever and headache disappeared.

Hirsh was infected with the H1N1 virus.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” she said. “People didn’t want to come and visit me because they thought they were going to contract it, but it is just like any normal flu.”

Local health officials said they are not shaken by the World Health Organization’s June 11 announcement declaring the H1N1 flu to be a pandemic — the global spread of an illness. It is the first one in 40 years and has touched down in dozens of countries across the globe.

Doug Beardsley, the director of the Johnson County Department of Public Health, said the declaration of pandemic will not affect how Johnson County health officials treat the virus.

“We are going to continue to follow state protocols,” he said. “Testing for the virus only if a patient displays similar symptoms — otherwise, they will be treated similar to the seasonal flu.”

Iowa has decided to increase seasonal flu testing throughout the year as a way to monitor this virus. Still, the state will no longer record individual cases by county; that will be left up to county officials.
Iowa has seen a small number of infected individuals in comparison with other states in the Midwest — there have been only 108 confirmed cases, four in Johnson County.

Although it is a mild strain, people still need to maintain good hygiene and practice healthy habits year-round, Beardsley said, and the initial response to the flu was an opportunity to see how things could play out in more serious cases.

“We would rather have exercise with mild disease than with a more dangerous one,” he said.
Pat Blake, a spokeswoman for the UI Hygienic Laboratory, said the H1N1 is similar to the common seasonal flu. The severity of this virus does not approach influenza outbreaks in years past. In 1918 the Spanish flu killed 40 million to 50 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Even milder strains, such as the one in 1957 — Asian flu — killed roughly 2 million people. Seasonal influenza kills around 250,00 to 500,000 people a year.

But it was not unreasonable for the public to panic at the threat of a pandemic. Alice Davison, a UI associate professor of linguistics, said the word “pandemic” refers to a widespread illness and often times can cause “people to panic.”

The definition of pandemic is not based on the severity of the illness but the number of countries that have seen the disease.

Hirsh, who has fully recovered and is spending the summer in Glenview, Ill., laughed at the thought of living through what has now been declared a pandemic.

“I think it’ hilarious that I lived through it,” she said. “I am totally fine; the media made it a huge deal.”


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