Flu cases expected to rise, state health officer says

Officials with the Alabama Health Department are preparing for a dramatic increase of influenza cases across the state, State Health Officer Dr. Donald Williamson said in an Oct. 8 Internet seminar.

As the state battles what the federal government has been classifying as a “widespread influenza disease” state, Alabama health officials are stocking up on flu vaccines to use in schools and other public places, Williamson explained.

“We’re in the middle of a six-week dramatic increase of influenza. Perhaps we’ve seen the most severe number of cases of the disease,” Williamson said, adding 16 flu-related deaths have been reported in the state this year.

“We probably have several more weeks or months of an increase,” Williamson added.

Many of the flu-related deaths may have been tied to the H1N1 flu strain, also known as the swine flu, the health official said. Because the state has been heavily affected by the disease outbreak, schools and emergency rooms across Alabama have been stricken hard, he said.

“We’re still seeing, right now, between 14-18 percent of emergency room visits are influenza-like illnesses,” Williamson said. “We’re still seeing more than half the schools reporting more than 5 percent absenteeism.”

Even though the state has ordered a total of 51,000 doses of the influenza vaccine, they are not arriving “as quickly as the state would like,” Williamson said. As of Oct. 8., 5,300 doses had arrived, 24,000 doses had shipped and 30,000 orders had been placed.

Alabama also is scheduled to receive between 400,000-500,000 flu nasal mist doses. Once they arrive, much of the flu medication doses will be reserved for schools, said Williamson.

“We can’t place orders on more than half of the injectable vaccinations until December,” Williamson said. “A large chunk of this vaccine is going to have to go to school-based practices.

“We’re going to be challenged to get them out to everybody when they would like,” Williamson added. “The vaccine is not coming out as quickly as we would like.”