Originally created 01/16/04

Area's flu cases drop as state's remain high



A basketball sent 10-year-old Melanie Chapman of Grovetown to the Medical College of Georgia Children's Medical Center.

"I was playing basketball, and the ball went into my hand," she said, waving a massive splint on her right hand that covered her fractured pinkie.

The Euchee Creek Elementary School pupil was pretty typical of the emergency traffic Thursday. What seemed odd was what was missing - flu patients. And schools might be the key.

In the past week, flu seems to have nearly vanished from Augusta emergency rooms.

"We've seen very few in the last week," said pediatric emergency medicine physician Lynne Coule. "The virus has come along and left."

Nationwide, the number of states reporting the highest level of flu cases dropped from 38 to 20, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday. Georgia, however, remains at the highest or widespread activity level, said Richard Quartarone, a spokesman for the Division of Public Health.

Not so here, said Rebecca Sylvester, a spokeswoman for University Hospital.

"They don't know if anyone's even been tested" this week, she said. Doctors Hospital is also reporting a drop.

And it might be due to timing - the two-week Christmas break came while the number of flu cases was still high, said Dr. James Wilde, the medical director of the MCG pediatric emergency department. Comparing it to a fire, Dr. Wilde said the break seemed to choke off the epidemic's fuel.

The same thing might have happened last year with an outbreak of viral meningitis in Augusta and surrounding counties, said Dr. Wilde, who is hoping to do two studies on the outbreak and map the epidemic week by week.

"There was a very intense period of activity around April and May, and right around the time that school let out, it just plummeted," Dr. Wilde said.

And, if the evidence supports it, that might become a suggested strategy in the future for schools hit hard by infectious diseases such as the flu or viral meningitis - an "emergency spring break" until the epidemic peaks, he said.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.