Last week, an editorial in a Kansas newspaper questioned changes at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) in H1N1 testing procedures.
The editorial called the changes an "about-face on the perspective of the disease" and concluded that based on the changes the disease is not as serious as we once thought. The editorial implied if the virus is presenting a serious threat, health officials should continue to be vigilant in tracking cases and keeping the public informed of its activity, pattern of growth and outcomes for patients.
Although the virus does not usually produce severe disease, its rapid global spread shows it has adapted well to humans. And this means many more people will get sick from it than what we typically see with seasonal flu. And, it also means we will see more deaths. What is also remarkable is who it is affecting the most — young children and adults. This is very different than seasonal flu. So I would agree it is extremely important for us to track the disease and keep the public informed, and I argue, in our transitioned methods of testing, we are doing just that.
With the assistance of public health partners across the state we have built a network of about 50 outpatient health care facilities to create an enhanced statewide flu surveillance network. In a typical flu season we have maintained a network of about 25 sites, but because of the need for additional surveillance related to H1N1 we've created an expanded network. Hospitals also are participating in influenza surveillance to help us monitor the impact of this virus.
Each week, those participating in this network submit information to KDHE on the percentage of patients they are seeing with influenza-like illness. They also are submitting a random sampling of specimens for testing.
What this does is allow us, in an organized and meaningful way, to look at the impact of the disease and what population groups it is affecting the most, as well as the geographic spread. This information will allow us to make the best public health recommendations for the state of Kansas. This modified procedure for testing isn't out of the norm, and in fact we have based our decisions on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which indicates that not all people with suspected cases of the H1N1 virus need to have laboratory confirmation.
We know the disease is here and we all must work together to help prevent its spread until the vaccine arrives. People who are experiencing flu-like symptoms should stay home, rest and drink plenty of fluids so they can recover without spreading the virus. We all must continue to practice good hygiene by washing our hands and covering our coughs. I urge all Kansans to stay informed about H1N1 and please know KDHE continues to take it seriously.
JASON EBERHART-PHILLIPS, MD, MPH
Eberhart-Phillips is a Kansas state health officer and director of health for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.