As the number of swine flu cases in the U.S. grows, local health officials say they’re scrutinizing logistics and preparedness to ensure medical workers and emergency crews know how to recognize the virus’ symptoms and handle suspected cases.
Still, health officials were quick to point out that the number of swine flu cases in Ohio hasn’t grown beyond the single case reported in an Elyria boy earlier this week.
As of Thursday, 109 cases were confirmed in 11 states, including the death of a toddler in Texas earlier this week.
Sandusky County health officials said they sent a single sample to the state for testing on Wednesday, while health officials in Erie, Ottawa and Huron counties said they had no suspected or confirmed cases as of Thursday.
Huron County sent two samples to the state earlier this week, but both tested negative for H1N1.
Mary Dennis, director of environmental health at Sandusky County Health Department, said she anticipates the state will provide results by Friday on the flu sample her agency sent for testing.
“We’ve been all over for the last few years getting prepared for something like this,” said Pete Schade, Erie County health commissioner. “Not just for H1N1, but even a tornado or any kind of situation.”
Health officials are now referring to the swine flu virus by its official designation, H1N1, in response to backlash from the pork industry, which issued news releases saying swine flu can’t be contracted through pork products.
In statements Wednesday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said officials are referring to the virus as H1N1 specifically because of the adverse impact the name “swine flu” could have on the pork business, grain farmers and others whose livelihoods are tied to the pork industry.
“I don’t care what they call it, just so I know what it is,” said Nancy Osborn, Ottawa County health commissioner.
A virus like H1N1 survives outside its host much differently than bacteria like E. coli, which thrives on food products and causes food-borne illnesses, Schade said.
“Swine flu viruses are not transmitted by food, so you cannot get swine flu from eating pork or pork products,” said Don Breece, assistant director of agriculture and natural resources at OSU Extension.
Frequent hand washing and avoiding touching your eyes, mouth or nose are the best ways to avoid spreading or contracting the illness.
“We need to get back to the old days of hand washing,” Schade said, pointing out that at least 20 seconds of good scrubbing with anti-bacterial soap in hot water, washing the front and back of the hands, is sound practice.
The World Health Organization reported Thursday there were 257 cases of H1N1 in 11 countries. In Mexico, the number of deaths attributed to the virus has fluctuated wildly this week, with some health agencies reporting as few as seven deaths there and others reporting 150 or more. WHO reported Thursday there are six confirmed H1N1-related deaths in Mexico.
Locally, health officials are working with emergency workers and medical professionals to make sure they know how to respond to suspected cases. This entails everything from issuing masks to paramedics — if it comes to that — to instructing 911 operators on which questions to ask if a caller complains of flu-like symptoms.
“There is a big concern with this flu, because every time you hear about it the numbers are increasing,” said Bill Walker, director at Erie County Emergency Management Agency. “I hate to downplay it, but every year we have 30,000 people die of regular flu. That’s never reported.”
Schade said Ohio has received antiviral doses from the national strategic stockpile, a collection of 10 national warehouses that store emergency supplies and prescriptions for virtually any emergency. In Ohio, there are eight regional distribution facilities that receive the antivirals, which can be distributed to local health departments on a moment’s notice.
“We’re still chugging along here like it’s bigger than it is because we want to be prepared,” Schade said. “We can’t let our guard down when we talk about influenza that’s around the world, because it might come back in a bigger way.”
The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic emerged in the spring of that year and slowly gained momentum, leading up to devastating illness and death in the fall and winter. Globally, that flu killed an estimated 50 million people. Like the current strain, the 1918 flu was also an H1N1 flu strain.