Deadly Flu Kills Nearly 100 U.S. Children

The Centers for Disease Control reports cases of the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, have spread to 46 states. Nearly 1,000 people have died, including close to 100 children. President Obama has declared a national state of emergency because of the H1N1 virus, or swine flu. Dr. Keith English is a professor of pediatrics and an infectious disease specialist at Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center in Memphis. English discusses how the virus spreading among children in the U.S.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

To Dr. England's point that germs don't discriminate, the Center for Disease Control reports that cases of the H1N1 virus have now spread to 46 states. There have been close to 1,000 deaths related to the virus in the United States. That includes nearly 100 children.

From the Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center in Memphis, Tennessee, we are joined now by Dr. Keith English. He's a professor of pediatrics and infectious disease specialist at the hospital. He joins us now from his lab. Thank you for speaking with us.

Dr. KEITH ENGLISH (Infectious Disease Specialist, Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center, Memphis): Thank you for having me today.

MARTIN: Would you walk us through the situation at the hospital. As I understand, you decided to set up a tent in the parking lot to screen patients who might have H1N1. Why did you do that?

Dr. ENGLISH: Well, that's right. And I can sort of give you the background for that. So, back in April and May when this novel H1N1 virus was first circulating in the United States, we were fortunate we had very few cases in the Memphis area. We had very good diagnostic tests and we looked hard, but there were only a few cases in Memphis and no severely ill children at all.

However, when school started back in August, as we had been concerned about, flu cases started increasing fairly dramatically such that by the end of August, we were seeing twice as many children in our emergency department every day as we normally would this time of year, and about half of them had the flu or flu-like symptoms.

Then by the 10th or 11th of September, our numbers of patients registering for care in the emergency department had actually gone up by more than two and a half times from the regular numbers, around 400 to 420 patients a day registering to be seen. So, based on that and the amount of patients being admitted to the hospital with influenza, we decided that it was necessary to set up a screening protocol and the best way to do that was to erect this rather large tent in the parking lot, right next to the emergency department.

MARTIN: What does that do for you, though? Does that keep the germs out of the building until you have - what does it, what does it do for you?

Dr. ENGLISH: It really is designed primarily to screen patients who are not severely ill and do not need to be seen in the emergency department, thereby allowing the sicker patients to be seen in an expeditious manner. Literally, 400 patients a day registering, we could not care for sick children in a timely manner. And so, it was really more to provide better care to those children who were sicker. It also allowed us to educate parents and families about the flu and tell them what the danger signs were that should cause them to seek medical attention right away.

MARTIN: What do you make of the president's order? How does that affect your life? Does that make your life better in any way? Does it do anything for you?

Dr. ENGLISH: I think it's a good thing because it allows hospitals more flexibility in how they will deal with this pandemic. At Le Bonheur, for example, in order to set up that screening tent, we had to have a federal waiver in order to do that because that was necessary. So, this will make it easier for hospitals to set up screening protocols like this if they need to. It also allows hospitals to transfer patients to other facilities if necessary. Fortunately here in Memphis, our flu numbers have fallen off fairly dramatically over the past two to three weeks. But it may help other places who were as hard hit as we were back in September.

MARTIN: What other tools do you need finally, doctor, that would help you address this pandemic?

Dr. ENGLISH: Well, we need the vaccine most of all. We have received our first shipments of vaccine. We were the first hospital in the United States to receive the vaccine about three weeks ago. And those first 200 doses of vaccine were all given to our health care workers. We have received additional doses and we are working very hard right now to offer vaccine to all of our health care workers. And in coordination with the Shelby County Health Department, we're hoping that there is widespread uptake of the vaccine in children and their families around the city.

MARTIN: And, finally, very briefly, if you would, why do you think that -you're saying that the increase is curtailing or the increase seems to be abating. What do you think that is?

Dr. ENGLISH: Good question, we don't know. We're happy to see that, obviously. Many cases, influenza pandemics come in waves. This started, our number of cases started falling off about two weeks ago and we're extremely happy to see that because it gives us an opportunity now to get people immunized, so that if there is another wave coming, which there may be in the winter months, we can curtail that.

MARTIN: That was Dr. Keith English. He's an infectious disease specialist at Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center in Memphis, Tennessee. He was kind enough to join us from his lab. Dr. English, thank you for joining us and stay well.

Dr. ENGLISH: Thank you so much for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, we go to Pakistan where a series of bombings and rape by Taliban militants is spreading fear. We'll take a closer look at how the terrpr has affected everyday life in the country and a prominent Pakistani scholar explains just how much is on the line with the government's military strategy. Those conversations are just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News

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