Cover Story: Tracking swine flu deaths

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

Posted by Sarah Hildmann - email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - H1N1 swine flu death numbers being kept hush-hush by health officials.  If someone died from the virus in your county - you'd have no way of knowing it.

One in ten emergency room visits are for flu-like symptoms.  Experts say all of those cases -- are swine flu.

You may be wondering with the severity of the virus - why are these numbers being held back?

It's a good question given the number of deaths we've seen so early in the season and seeing how swine flu affects young people.

Since the last week of September there have been six flu-related deaths in North Carolina, two of the cases have been children under 18 who died.  In a normal year, this early in the season, we would not have seen a single death in the state.

You may have seen it Sunday night on "60 Minutes."

A 15-year old athletic boy in Arkansas perfectly healthy until coming down with H1N1 swine flu.  He's now clinging to life.  It's the kind of case that get our attention.

The CDC's chief officer in the war on swine flu is Anne Schuchat.  She says, "We're seeing it everywhere.. a lot of illness, hospitalizations and deaths."

North Carolina hasn't made a practice of recording every single death each year from the flu.

It does however keep tabs on the numbers of patients under 18 who die from the flu each year.

This year, because of H1N1.. it's keeping totals of all flu-related deaths.  But it's a number that won't be broken down county-by-county.

"I don't think there's any real reason from a public health perspective to break down the information that way," says Dr. Zack Moore, a medical epidemiologist with the NC Department of Health and Human Services.

The state does release county-level information for most of its reportable disease.  Why not swine flu? Health officials say by doing so could conceivably identify a patient.

Information that has gotten out.. like the soldier at South Carolina's Fort Jackson who died last month from "pneumonia due to swine flu".. that information has come from sources other than the local or state health department.

"The need for families to be able to have their privacy outweighs the benefit of knowing exactly where those deaths occur at the present time," says Dr. Stephen Keener, Mecklenburg county medical director.

He says North Carolina's directed hospitals and physicans to track of swine flu deaths and forward that information to the Department of Health and Human Services.

But don't count on hospitals to release the information whether they have had any swine flu related deaths for fear of breaking federal patient - privacy laws.

Health officials say knowing there has been a death in a certain connty isn't that relevant.

Says Dr. Moore, "There's no special precautions that people who were in contact with someone who later went on to die from flu-illness need to take."

But the information is being reported in some states.. does the public have a right to know?

"I think there may be a time when that will be okay. We have to balance that with the need for confidentiality," says Dr. Keener.

Health officials stress they're not trying to keep vital information from the public.

We're in unchartered territory, as one official told us.  They've made changes frequently since this pandemic began in April.. it's evolving rapidly.

Has Mecklenburg county had any deaths so far from the swine flu?

There have 18 deaths statewide since the outbreak began.. four last week but because of Mecklenburg's population we can infer that we've probably had at least one.. but there's no way of knowing.