One of the best aspects of the 2009 novel H1N1 flu virus is that most people infected get nothing worse than the symptoms of a bad cold.
But the worst and most mysterious aspect is that the disease strikes an unusually large number of healthy young people and can be fatal for adolescents and young adults even when they receive intensive care treatment, according to two studies released Monday.
“Young healthy people who have had no underlying condition: that is humbling and mysterious. It is rare, but once you see it, you never forget it. You pour in the antibacterials and pray,” Dr. John Bartlett, a professor of medicine and a former director of infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told The Washington Times.
The lead author of the Canadian study, Dr. Anand Kumar, commented how unusual it was to have the patients become so ill so suddenly and warned of a real risk that local health care systems in the U.S. and anywhere else “would be overwhelmed.”
“These people were not just a little bit ill. They were spectacularly ill,” Dr. Kumar told Health Day News. “To see 40 patients like this simultaneously in the ICU, all struggling for their lives, all in the space of a few weeks – that’s really unusual.”
However, epidemiologists such as Dr. Bartlett cautioned against hysteria based on the two studies, calling it “a numbers game” that depends on how widespread the H1N1 virus becomes and noting also that “infectious care centers are breeding grounds for diseases.”
“Nobody knows all the people who got sick with it,” he said. “Keep in perspective the number of people who have died from flu is small compared to the numbers infected.”
It was also very “humbling” for the medical establishment, he said: “A lot of very smart people have spent a lifetime studying influenza, and nobody saw this coming. This was an odd assortment – avian, pig and people’s genes all brewing in a pig for eight years and all of a sudden it is exploding.”
Dr. Bartlett also expressed worry about the pressure put on intensive care units, referring to an Australian study that reported “a 14-fold increase in the population in ICUs during their swine flu season” in the Southern Hemisphere.
Johns Hopkins already is feeling the burden of patients with severe H1N1 symptoms, said Dr. Trish Perl, another department of medicine professor and specialist in infectious diseases.
Of particular concern is America’s ICUs outrunning their supply of ventilators – essential to treatment of the worst flu cases, Dr. Bartlett said.
“You have heard about the huge government supply of vaccine and Tamiflu, but you haven’t heard about a big government supply of ventilators,” he said. Intensive care units “are already at a breaking point and have been that way for the past 10 years. Half of emergency rooms operate at full capacity.”