Swine Flu Sweeps Through Austin, Hitting The Young

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Sammi Jiminez, 4, waits to be examined by a doctor i

Sammi Jiminez, 4, waits to be examined by a doctor on Monday, during his family's visit to a tent clinic set up to treat patients with flu symptoms outside the emergency room at Dell Children's Hospital in Austin, Texas. Harry Cabluck/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Harry Cabluck/AP
Sammi Jiminez, 4, waits to be examined by a doctor

Sammi Jiminez, 4, waits to be examined by a doctor on Monday, during his family's visit to a tent clinic set up to treat patients with flu symptoms outside the emergency room at Dell Children's Hospital in Austin, Texas.

Harry Cabluck/AP

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 26 states are experiencing widespread H1N1 virus, or swine flu, activity — almost all of them in the lower half of the nation.

Texas is one of those hot spots. In the past week, a 14-year-old Fort Worth girl and a 16-year-old Dallas County girl died after being diagnosed with swine flu.

There were so many absences in public schools in Huntsville, north of Houston, that the district closed all of its campuses and told 6,300 students to stay home.

Hundreds Treated

Dell Children's Medical Center, a modern new hospital on the site of Austin's old airport, recently erected three sand-colored field tents on its parking lot to deal exclusively with swine flu.

"For the past two weeks or so, we're seeing an increasingly high volume of flu cases here in Austin," says Pat Crocker, the hospital's chief of emergency medicine. "And it's peaking now, it seems. We saw 400 arrivals yesterday, most of them with flu."

Hundreds have been seen here over the past few days. Crocker says the flu tents relieve the load on the emergency room and keep the highly contagious away from other patients.

The good news, Crocker says, is that flu patients exhibit mild to moderate symptoms and rarely have to be admitted to the hospital.

"Most all of these children are getting well on their own — with a little help from Mom — and that's all it takes," he says.

No one has hard numbers on how many people are sick with swine flu in Austin. The Austin/Travis County Health Department reports only 21 hospitalizations and two deaths from H1N1.

But anecdotally, everybody knows the flu bug is roaring through town like a "blue northern" — the famous Texas autumnal cold fronts.

Hitting The Young, But Resilient

Last week, H1N1 took out the entire tuba section of the Austin High School marching band — five players — according to band director Brian Frock.

Dr. Toral Shah talks with Sandy Jiminez. i

Dr. Toral Shah (center) talks with Sandy Jiminez (left) before examining her son, Sammi. More than 1,000 patients, mostly young, were seen at this clinic over three days. Harry Cabluck/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Harry Cabluck/AP
Dr. Toral Shah talks with Sandy Jiminez.

Dr. Toral Shah (center) talks with Sandy Jiminez (left) before examining her son, Sammi. More than 1,000 patients, mostly young, were seen at this clinic over three days.

Harry Cabluck/AP

"They were all sick at once, and rumor had it they thought it would be cool to drink out of one water cooler at the game the week before," Frock says. "And so they were all sick over the weekend, and sickness went throughout the band. And we're still having some of that going on."

The tuba section is back this week and will be marching in the halftime show at Thursday's game between the Austin High Maroons and the Akins Eagles.

That's what everyone in town says: This flu mainly infects young people, but they get over it relatively quickly.

Thomas Hughes, a doctor at Capital Pediatrics Group in Austin, says his practice has had to hire additional staff and stay open late to accommodate the crush of patients.

"In my 35 years of practicing pediatrics in Austin, I've never seen an epidemic like this," Hughes says. But he adds that he has not seen many older people coming down with the illness.

The Best Cure: TLC

In terms of the patients themselves, though, what does it feel like to have H1N1?

"It wasn't much different from the normal flu. It was just aches, headache, some stomach pain ... a really high fever," says 15-year-old Helen Burnett, my daughter. "I just all-around didn't have much energy."

Her experience was far different from what she feared last spring, when swine flu hit the news.

"When it first came out and I heard about it in the newspaper and on TV and stuff, like everyone else I was thinking, 'Oh, no! I'm going to get swine flu and get sick and die,' " she says.

Helen was down for all of six days. A prescription of the flu treatment Tamiflu might have shortened her symptoms, but her doctor followed CDC guidelines, which is to give it only to children under 2 or to patients with special medical conditions.

So, while her immune system went to work, Helen slept, watched TV, texted her friends and ate.

"Even though I was sick, my appetite was really, really good," she says. "And so you'd bring me pretty much anything I wanted: popsicles, strawberries, Pop-Tarts, a Schlotzsky's sandwich and bacon."

Once again, TLC — along with a fever reducer — is the best medicine.

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