State health officials brace for flu mutationST PAUL — Health officials are preparing for a pandemic flu that kills many Minnesotans.
By: Don Davis, State Capitol Bureau
ST PAUL — Health officials are preparing for a pandemic flu that kills many Minnesotans.
Or a flu almost no one notices.
Or something in between.
“Anything could happen,” said John Stine, assistant Minnesota Health Department commissioner. “There is no way of giving you a forecast.”
First identified in April, swine flu has so far caused about 263 deaths, according to numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday.
The CDC said more than 40,000 Americans have had confirmed or probable cases, but those are people who sought health care. It’s probable that more than 1 million Americans contracted by the flu, many with mild cases.
Stine and other Minnesota health leaders fear it could get far worse if the current flu virus mutates, as has happened in the past.
“It’s now everywhere,” Stine said. “It moves easily from person to person, but it is not as severe as the 1918 virus.”
Health officials worldwide think about the 1918 pandemic that killed 50 million people worldwide when they prepare for what could be a rough fall and winter.
“You prepare for it like you do for a hurricane,” said nationally known epidemiologist Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota. “At this point, we are preparing for this being a very serious situation come fall.”
The biggest fear is the deadly bird flu that Osterholm and others discussed so much in 2005 combines with the rapidly spreading strain now circling the globe. That could form a new, deadly virus that would leave humans nearly defenseless. Such a transformation could happen in weeks.
Flu talk has subsided since the spring, when what then was called swine flu jumped from Mexico to other countries. The United States has been especially hard hit, although the current flu strain produces relatively mild symptoms in many of its victims.
In Minnesota, other than the reporting of a recent death — one of three in the state — the public has heard little about the flu in the past few weeks. But health officials remain on high alert.
Up to 100 of the Minnesota Health Department’s 1,300 workers are focused on the flu, getting ready for an expected new wave in the fall and winter.
Even before that next wave hits, however, the flu still is spreading.
In the first few days of the outbreak, Minnesota and other states released information whenever a case was found. Now, only people hospitalized are being tested, so no one knows how many people have the pandemic flu.
At about the same time the seasonal flu makes its annual visit beginning in the fall, the pandemic flu could begin its second wave. That dual flu outbreak will produce confusion among Minnesotans, state health officials say.
For instance, Kristen Ehresmann of the Minnesota Health Department said, people will need vaccinations both for seasonal and pandemic flu.
If the flu strain mutates, the vaccine would have to be changed to provide adequate protection.
“That is not an instant process,” said Aggie Leitheiser, the Health Department’s emergency preparedness director. “They are developing the vaccine the way it [the flu] looks today.”
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the News Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this report.