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VOA Interview: Health Official Says US Flu Outbreak Could Become Epidemic - 2003-12-12

Reports that the early and intense outbreak of influenza in the Western United States is rapidly spreading to other states have sent Americans flocking to their doctors for immunizations.

Hospital emergency rooms in affected areas have been kept busy tending to the needs of those who have been stricken with the flu. Some U.S. health experts are predicting that this year's death toll, from influenza, easily could surpass the annual average of 36,000 deaths.

Appearing on VOA's Talk to America, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy & Infectious Diseases, describes the current outbreak of Influenza.

"Well, we're having a year that looked like it could turn out to be a serious year, in that the cases of flu that are now seeing widespread involvement in 13 states already in the end of November, beginning of December when in general you find this type of intensity usually at a peak in January," he said. "So it's an early onset of a serious flu season."

Dr. Fauci points out that the viruses involved in this outbreak are among the most serious of all strains of influenza.

"The flu involved is an h3 and 2, which is the letter and number designation of the influenza viruses, generally h3s and 2s are more serious than the other influenzas," he said.

Even those who had already been inoculated against Influenza this year still run the risk of getting flu. Dr. Fauci explains how this could happen and how it could make a bad situation worse.

"The vaccine that's being used is not a perfect match for the virus that's circulating in society," he said. "There is a considerable degree of crossing reactivity - that you could induce a response that would protect you somewhat - but it's not a perfect match. So you have a difficult situation in which you have already more cases now than you would expect in a normal year, of a disease that you really need to take very seriously. So we're watching this influenza situation, very closely in the United States."

While the current influenza outbreak is considered serious, Dr. Fauci is careful not label it as an epidemic, yet.

"Calling something an epidemic is a very complicated statistical methodology of crossing a certain threshold," he said. "Let me give you some perspective. On a regular, general year, a usual year, there are about 36,000 deaths from influenza in the United States with about 114,000 hospitalizations, about 20 percent of the population get infected. That would be a situation that if we, for example went up to 70,000 deaths that would be comparable to some of the very bad years that we had, oh back in 1957, 68. Although we have not nationally crossed that threshold, of officially calling it of epidemic proportions, it looks like its heading in that direction."

Many Americans have also expressed concern that there may not be enough of the influenza vaccine available to continue with the inoculations. Dr. Fauci notes that although more vaccine was made this year than in the past, more people than previous have also been inoculated. He recommends that the public health care community make plans to ensure that the vaccine be readily available to those seeking the influenza inoculation.

"Eighty-three million doses were made," he said. "We have never used more than 80 million doses, so more was made this year than general, but already the manufacturers have distributed virtually all the vaccine that they have. So we need to start looking, at some regions of the country there are shortages and what we have to do is reassess the inventory and perhaps redistribute from some regions that might have more than enough, versus others that have already run out. So 83 million doses have not been administered to people, but there's no more to distribute from the companies; it's out in the field, we have to take a look. In addition, the CDC is trying to work out a situation where they may get some extra doses both domestically, from the company that makes it here, as well as a European company that might have some number of doses that we could negotiate."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu has hit all 50 states at least sporadically, although it has not yet peaked nationally. This year's flu season may peak as early this month, rather than February, which is the norm.