Sunday, October 19, 2014

U.S. hospitals gird for Ebola panic as flu season looms

By on 6:13 AM

NEW YORK, Oct 19 (Reuters) - A young woman complaining ofabdominal pain and nausea who had traveled to Africa arrived ata Long Island hospital fearful that she had contracted Ebola.She did not have the virus, but the pregnancy test was positive.

The woman had been to South Africa, more than 3,400 miles(5,400 km) from the three West African countries enduring theworst Ebola outbreak on record, and the trip ended six weeksprior, or twice the potential incubation period for Ebolainfection.

U.S. hospitals gird for Ebola panic as flu season looms
"It tells you how ready for panic we can get ourselves,"said Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious diseases specialist at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York. "There'sa lot of anxiety and the answer to anxiety is information andtraining."

The woman's fear was emblematic of panic across the country since Liberian traveler Thomas Eric Duncan became the firstperson diagnosed with Ebola in the United States on Sept. 30.Two of the nurses who treated him at a Dallas, Texas hospitalhave since become infected, and several hundred more potentialcontacts, both direct and indirect, have been tracked.

Already dozens of false Ebola scares have been reported byhospitals even though the virus is spread through direct contactwith bodily fluids from an infected person and the virus is notairborne.

With the annual flu season looming, hospitals and doctorsare preparing themselves for emergency rooms that may becomeflooded with patients who fear Ebola but instead have influenza,which can cause similar symptoms in the early stages such asfever and body aches.

But fear often trumps common sense, even though peopleshould be far more worried about the flu given the toll it isknown to take every year, doctors said.

"You're far more likely to die at this point from notreceiving a flu shot," said Dr. Sampson Davis, an emergencymedicine physician at Meadowlands Hospital Center in Secaucus,New Jersey.

The severity of the flu season, which varies from year toyear, and any spread of Ebola in the United States, will becritical factors in how strained hospital resources may become.And while there are tests for influenza and screening protocolsbeing put in place for Ebola, hospitals could also face patientswith all sorts of ailments looking to allay misplaced fears.

"I think there will be an increase of people who want to getchecked out just because of the fear factor, especially if westart to see more of a spread of Ebola," Davis said.


Flu season typically begins in November and peaks in Januaryor February. More than 200,000 people are hospitalized onaverage for flu-related complications each year, according tothe U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).Annual U.S. flu deaths have ranged as low as 3,000 and as highas 49,000.

Doctors and public health officials interviewed by Reuterssaid many hospitals are implementing protocols that limit Ebolatesting to people who had direct contact with the disease, suchas a healthcare worker, and recent travelers to Liberia, SierraLeone and Guinea.

Fears that Ebola may spread in the United States intensifiedwhen it became public this week that the second Dallas-basednurse confirmed with Ebola had traveled on two domesticcommercial flights days before she was diagnosed. U.S. healthofficials insist the likelihood of an outbreak here remains low.

"Outside of West Africa you are just not at risk," said PaulBiddinger, head of emergency preparedness at MassachusettsGeneral Hospital in Boston. Travel screening "is by far and awaythe most important part of our frontline intervention."

Ebola symptoms that mirror flu include fever, muscle aches,nausea and general weakness.

But most flu sufferers "also have cough, runny nose,scratchy throat, very congested," which can help differentiatethe two illnesses early on, said Dr. Michael Parry, aninfectious diseases specialist at Stamford Hospital inConnecticut. Emergency room staff also have a rapid flu testthat can confirm influenza in a matter of minutes.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious diseases specialist at theUniversity of Pittsburgh, said hospitals also expect to see moreof what they call the "worried well" - people who are generallyhealthy but believe they have a devastating disease. (Editing by Michele Gershberg and Grant McCool)
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