Cover Story: Status report - 2009-2010 H1N1 flu

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - World Health Organization officials meeting Tuesday to determine the official status of one of the year's biggest threats.

It was a virus that appeared out of nowhere and turned up everywhere with alarming speed.  Millions of people caught it-- unusual groups. pregnant women, young people.

Right now is when we'd normally be seeing a spike in flu cases we're not.  What happened to H1N1 flu?

When H1N1 went off the charts last summer and fall local health officials were anticipating seeing a spike when we normally hit the flu season right about now.   And we're not.  But when it comes to the flu, this has been anything but a normal year.

Otherwise health people dying a scare sent throughout the globe.  People wearing masks for protection.  Using hand sanitizer like crazy.

Then came the flu shots and a shortage of shots.  H1N1 was all we were talking about.

And those shots that you couldn't get, now they can't give them away.  What happened to H1N1 flu?

We sat down Monday afternoon with the medical director of the state's largest county health department.. Dr. Stephen Keener.

"Not really sure what happened," he said.  He doesn't think it's because the disease wasn't severe.  H1N1 spread rapidly to virtually every country in the world, rising to the level for the World Health Organization to call it the first influenza pandemic in more than 40 years.

It has killed as many as 17,000 Americans, but not as many as the 36,000 people who die from seasonal flu each year.

"We were braced and prepared for something far more severe that didn't happen.. which is good," says Keener.

Could it be the health community put so much emphasis behind it vaccinating people that the virus was stopped in its tracks.. 50-thousand school children for example were vaccinated in the schools in Mecklenburg county.. or could it be the disease ran its course?

What happened has forecasters and epidemiologists scratching their heads.

"I think it was right to take it seriously. Now when it's all said and done we can look back on it say well maybe we overreacted a little bit.. but how do we know that at the start?"

Keener cites to the 1918 swine flu pandemic that went like a roller coaster.. mild then spiked and ended up killing 50 million worldwide and the bird flu of a few years ago that had a death rate of about 50%.  So is the swine flu over?

"My gut told me we were going to see another wave right now and it hasn't happened so I think I'm not trusting my gut right now."

What he does believe is that while mild now, H1N1 could return in the summer which is what happened last year.  There's no way of knowing.

"Maybe we dodge a bullet but when it's all said and done we're here to protect health and save lives and at the end of the day I think that goal was largely accomplished."

Was it overblown?  There will be those who say it was.  Clearly, a no-win situation though.. if you don't do enough and the pandemic runs like wildfire, you're criticized.

Over treat the situation - nothing happens and you're criticized as wasteful.

One more note between those who've had the disease and received the shot at this point half the people in North Carolina are immune to H1N1.

Should you get the shot?  At this point, health officials wouldn't say don't do it, but you may not need to.  Traditional flu season ends in April.

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