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The Need to Stay Calm During Swine Flu Season

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

I have found myself sounding like a broken record for the past week, and feel certain that the record is going to continue to “skip” as the confusion over the use of antiviral for H1N1 (swine flu) continues. In the last week I have not only been to the office, but also to a school board meeting and several social engagements after work, all which were opportunities to discuss the continued H1N1 outbreaks and anxiety associated with “swine flu”. I guess the good thing is that no one is discussing the economy; it is all chatter about flu.

It is important to reiterate that H1N1 is another flu, really no different than seasonal flu which we experience every year in the U.S. The difference is that this is a new or novel flu virus and it has managed to spread, quite effectively, throughout the spring and summer months, and into the early fall, with a clear predilection for school aged children. With that being said, now that schools are back in session and our children are all together in close quarters, we are seeing an increase in H1N1 activity throughout the country.

Because of the previous concerns about swine flu last spring and the uncertainty of how the population as a whole would handle this virus, there has been a great deal of anxiety associated with this particular virus. Fortunately, over the last five months, the data is showing that H1N1 has not caused more pediatric deaths than we see each year with seasonal influenza (which is still yet to come this winter). The MAJORITY of children with this virus are doing well, and are recovering within two to seven days, even without the routine use of antivirals like Tamiflu and Relenza. The CDC has reiterated that routine testing for influenza and use of antivirals is not necessary for the school aged child, without underlying chronic illness, who is not seriously ill. That is most of our children. Younger children, under the age of five, and especially under the age of two, needs to be evaluated and may or may not need antiviral treatment. That is a decision for their pediatrician to make.

Despite these ongoing recommendations parents are frantically calling the office requesting that antivirals, like Tamiflu, be prescribed for their family, “in case” they are exposed to flu, get sick, feel like they might get sick, or as one mother actually said, “I’ll feel better if my son is just on Tamiflu all winter.” This is not going to help anyone. The exposures are going to continue throughout the winter. Not just at schools, but also at the grocery store, cleaners, church, after school events and the list is endless. We need to try and keep a level head and not horde a medication that others may truly need, or spend unnecessary valuable health care dollars on medicine that will be thrown out in a year, or have people start and stop Tamiflu and Relenza as they feel better. Just like antibiotics, overuse and indiscriminate use of antiviral medication will lead to resistant influenza strains. When we really need these drugs, we all want them to work, for our children, for ourselves and for all of those that may get seriously ill throughout this flu season.

This “swine flu frenzy” is reminiscent of the hording of Cipro during the anthrax scare. I wonder how much Cipro was hidden away, “just in case you opened your mail and found a white powder.” As I recall, there were shortages of Cipro for months, and the same might happen with antiviral medications.

It is easy to write prescriptions, but it is much harder to do the right thing and try and teach patients and families why doctors are not routinely prescribing antiviral medications. If things change and recommendations change doctors will let you know, but in the meantime, keep sick children home until they are fever free, read the information about those who might need to take an antiviral medication and keep washing hands.

That’s your daily dose, we’ll chat again soon.

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