H1N1, round two

Pub date October 6, 2009


The H1N1 virus has already taken a deadly toll in San Francisco, and is expected to hit young people harder than any other group this fall, San Francisco public health officials warned.

Although the virus, also known as swine flu, is reportedly no more serious than conventional strains of flu, health officials told the Guardian that the number of young patients contracting the illness could be significantly higher due to a lack of partial immunity against the strain.

"In terms of the severity of the illness, we are not seeing a difference at all between normal and H1N1 swine flu," said Susan Fernyak, director of communicable disease control and prevention at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. "Yet while a lot of people have partial immunity to seasonal influenza, most people have no immunity from this virus.

"It might not have a higher transmission rate or be any more severe, but we are predicting more illness in the community," she added.

According to Fernyak, vaccinations will soon become available for "high-risk individuals." These include pregnant women, health care workers, people between 25 and 64 with underlying chronic health disorders, and everyone between the ages of 6 months and 24 years.

In late August, the Castro District community was left in shock when 41-year-old Doug Murphy, co-owner of Moby Dick and the recently opened Blackbird bars, died after contracting the H1N1 virus.

Blackbird co-owner Shawn Vergara spent most of his working life with Murphy and shared the same birthday (Aug. 3) with his friend. He said the community was left speechless at the loss of such a prominent and important member.

"It is a tragic loss for us here at Blackbird, and we are suffering terribly from the death of our friend," Vergara said. "We thought he had a cold and had absolutely no idea how serious it was. People should be careful and just use good common sense when taking precautions from this virus."

Although people over 65 are usually the ones who require hospitalization or die from conventional strains of flu, younger people have been most affected by the H1N1 virus, local doctors said. "The difference with this virus is that people who are over 65 are underrepresented in the number of people getting sick, going to hospital, and dying," said Dr. Lisa Winston, an epidemiologist at San Francisco General Hospital.

Experts believe there might be some preexisting immunity among the older age groups, she added. Although initial data from Australia suggests people will be immune from the virus within 10 days of taking the vaccine, Winston is still concerned about the impact H1N1 will have within the community.

"Hopefully we can make the impact less if we get a lot of the vaccine and distribute it properly," Winston said. "But it could still impact a lot of areas, from schools to employment, and place a severe burden on the healthcare system.

"We are still concerned that even if we only have a small number of people having bad outcomes from the virus, there could still be a substantial number in hospitals," she said. "We know there is still some H1N1 circuutf8g and expect a peak, but we are not sure when it’s going to be. There is anxiety around it, and a lot of that is appropriate."

According to Winston, two-thirds of the people who have been hospitalized and died from H1N1 have had underlying medical conditions. Unlike with seasonal flu, those who are morbidly obese also have been highlighted as being possible high-risk patients.