The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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September 20, 2009

Experts urge an informed, measured response to flu

Health-care leaders across the region are urging an informed, measured response to what one local expert describes as government-fueled hysteria surrounding the H1N1 flu.

“At this point, we are dealing with a mild flu with a lot of media attention,” said Dr. Michael Allswede of Memorial Medical Center’s emergency medicine residency program.

Erroneously called swine flu, H1N1 first gained notoriety last spring when dozens of deaths were linked to the virus in Mexico.

The deaths elicited memories of the murderous 1918 “Spanish flu” epidemic and put the medical community into high gear, tracking the disease and developing a vaccine.

But as scientists examined this current outbreak, they found a much less lethal situation than first feared.

“It was not necessarily the virus that was causing the deaths in Mexico,” Chief Wellness Officer Dr. Matthew Masiello said from Windber Research Institute. “But it was the health system and community poverty.”

The latest reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state Health Department show elevated numbers for those with flu-like symptoms and positive blood tests. But that is probably due to the heightened awareness, Allswede said.

The same reports show a much lower-than-average death rate for the flu, which kills more than 30,000 people every year in the United States. Most of the deaths and more serious complications such as pneumonia occur in the very old, very young and those with respiratory conditions such as asthma or compromised immune systems.

“We have a lot more people interested in the flu,” Allswede said. “We have doctors doing more testing and detecting more mild to moderate flu.

“The hysteria is fulfilling itself. People are finding more flu, but the actual number of people dying from the flu is way down.”

But it is too early to say how bad the flu season will be this year, Masiello said. While he agrees that H1N1 has not been a widespread serious threat, he does not want people to ignore the flu.

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