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Flu Appears Mild, But Officials Still Have Unanswered Questions02:33

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There are now 34 confirmed cases of swine flu in Massachusetts. Gov. Deval Patrick and other state officials announced 28 new confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus Monday night. All are considered mild and most of the patients are children.

Officials say there's cause for concern, but not for alarm. For the latest, WBUR spoke with state Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach.

Up until Monday night, there were just six confirmed cases of the H1N1 swine flu in Massachusetts, now 34. Can we call that dramatic, and what's driving it?

COMMISSIONER JOHN AUERBACH: We had a backlog of tests because we were sending the specimens down to the Centers for Disease Control. As of Monday, the CDC approved the Hinton Laboratory in Massachusetts for doing the testing locally, and that meant we could get rid of the backlog. So, those were cases that had built up over several days and not ones that represented the number of cases that we'll be seeing each day.

Could we see another big jump in the number of cases in Massachusetts based on the test results that still need to come in?

AUERBACH: We don't expect that we'll see that. Over the last few days, we've been averaging about between five and 10 specimens that are being sent to the laboratory for analysis. And so it's likely that we'll be seeing somewhere in that range each day, at least in our current estimates.

Of the 34 cases out there so far, only three have been serious enough to require hospitalization. Can we say at this point that the swine flu is a mild flu?

AUERBACH: We're not completely ready to draw any conclusions, but we are encouraged by the fact that in Massachusetts, and in the rest of the country, most of the cases have been mild. You are correct in pointing out though that a certain number of them have been more serious.

Even seasonal flu can be very serious for certain people. Keep in mind that about 800 people die of the flu in Massachusetts each year — that's the seasonal flu. So, it's important we take it seriously; it's important we continue to monitor the health of those who become infected with the H1N1 virus.

We have about 34 cases of the flu in Massachusetts right now. Three hospitalized. It's a very small data set, but that is 10 percent of the current flu cases that required hospitalization. Is that normal? Would the "regular" flu drive about 10 percent of its patients to the hospital?

AUERBACH: It's difficult to say because we're not capturing exact figures either during seasonal flu season or now. And that's because many of the people with the flu simply aren't tested. They're treated for their symptoms. They're advised by their physicians, but not tested.

So, so far it appears that this particular kind of flu is creating the same kind of health problems that seasonal flu does. But, again, it's a little premature for us to absolutely draw that conclusion — we want to monitor more carefully.

Why do about two-thirds of the cases of swine flu in the state involve children or young adults?

AUERBACH: That is different than the seasonal flu and we're not completely clear about it. During the normal flu season, what we see is that the very old and the very young appear to be the most vulnerable in terms of having a serious case of the flu that causes medical complications.

You're correct, what we're seeing now is a large percentage of the cases involve teenagers or young adults. And the Centers for Disease Control is paying attention to that and trying to understand what the reasons are. There are a few theories, but it's still one of those areas where more investigation is necessary.

Might it be that adults have some built-up immunity?

AUERBACH: It is possible. It's possible that there's built up immunity. It's possible that the flu shots that older adults have been getting over the years may give them some degree of protection. We just have to do a little more investigation before we understand that more fully.

This program aired on May 5, 2009.

Bob Oakes Twitter Host, Morning Edition
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.


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