Cover Story: Swine flu - is the worst ahead?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - This week, students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools getting the H1N1 vaccine.  And according to local health experts that's a good thing, because when it comes to the swine flu the worst may be yet to come.

It's the largest inoculation in modern history.  And while tens of thousands of school kids across our region are lining up to get their shots because the vaccine is new and rushed into production some parents are concerned about its safety.

What are doctors are saying and what could be coming with the swine flu?

Health officials say the 2009 H1N1 pandemic closely resembles the pattern of the influenza epidemic of 1918 which killed 50 million people, more than three times the number killed in World War One.

One fifth of the world's population was attacked by this deadly virus.

It came in three waves started in the summer went sky high in the fall and peaked again in February and March during the traditional flu season.

Could this be the pattern for H1N1?  Or could we see flu cases go even higher next year in February, March and April when we have both flus going on at the same time?

No one knows for sure but says Mecklenburg Medical Director Dr. Stephen Keener, "We really want to get people protected before we get into that seasonal influenza season."

School children those most likely at risk of getting H1N1 are the first to get inoculated en masse in Mecklenburg county.

The Mecklenburg Health Department began clinics in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools this week and sent out information to parents from the Centers for Disease Control.

Mentioned in the material and in material that's heating up the blogs which concerns many parents is the swine flu vaccine developed in 1976.

It was linked to Guillain-Barré Syndrome, GBS. a paralyzing neuromuscular disorder.

Since then, flu vaccines have not been clearly linked to GBS but because this is a new vaccine some have been reluctant to get it even though it's made by the same companies who make the seasonal flu.

"The technology processes are all the same," say Keener.  "The companies are the same and we know from our experience that this is a vaccine that is safe and effective."

He says more than likely H1N1 will be melded into the seasonal flu vaccine when it's given out next year.

Why is so important to get vaccinated?  When swine flu spiked in our area about a month ago one out of every ten patients reporting to hospitals' emergency departments was for the flu.  It's also been linked to unusually high absenteeism in schools.

Even though not as many people are getting sick right now doctors say another round is coming.

Says Dr. Keener, "It shouldn't be a sign for us to relax and stop what we're doing. If anything it should be a sign that we should continue with our vaccination efforts."

What if you've had swine flu, should you get the shot?  Health officials are recommending you should.

Most of the tests for H1N1 done later in the outbreak were not definitive tests and so you may not have actually had the disease so health officials are saying yes get the vaccine.

How's the vaccine distribution going in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system?

As of Tuesday the latest numbers available nearly 7-thousand school children have gotten the shot.

The health department is hoping to get through all the schools in Mecklenburg county and throughout the general public by the end of January.