Swine flu is widespread in Georgia already

About 36 children are among those who have died from the novel influenza A H1N1 virus this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday.

The number of people with flulike illness is increasing in the Southeast, particularly in Georgia, which is now at widespread status, the highest level of flulike activity. The Georgia Division of Public Health noted that as of Wednesday 192 people have been hospitalized and five have died from the new virus. One of the Georgia deaths was a 7-year-old boy in Gilmer County, and another was a 52-year-old woman in Clarke County. All of the Georgia patients who died had underlying health conditions, the Georgia division said.

Of the 36 children across the country who died, two-thirds had a serious underlying disability, such as cerebral palsy, said CDC Director Thomas Frieden. Seven of the 36 were younger than 5 years old and five were younger than 2, according to data reported in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Six of the children were older than 5, had no underlying health conditions and were hit by an invasive bacterial infection, which Dr. Frieden said should be a warning to clinicians if a child gets sick, gets better, then comes down with fever again.

Nineteen of the children who died received antiviral treatment -- mostly Tamiflu -- but only four started treatment within the recommended 48 hours from when the illness began, the report notes.

"If children have underlying conditions -- and two-thirds of the children in this report had conditions such as muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy -- it's very important that they be treated promptly," Dr. Frieden said.

The opposite might be true for healthy people who do not appear to have severe symptoms such as trouble breathing, he said.

"The overwhelming majority of people with H1N1 influenza are going to do fine, they don't need testing, they don't need treatment," Dr. Frieden said. He urged people who are not having severe symptoms to refrain from using hospital Emergency Rooms or visiting the doctor to keep from overwhelming the system.

In past flu seasons, there have been pediatric deaths ranging from 156 in the 2003-04 season to 46 in the 2005-06 season, the CDC report notes. While the new virus appears to be more prone to strike younger people, evidence from the Southern hemisphere and data from the U.S. suggest it is not more deadly than seasonal flu, Dr. Frieden said.

"So far, it is not more severe," he said. "We don't know that it's less severe. Clearly, the number of deaths now at more than 500 deaths in the country in all age groups emphasizes that influenza can be a very serious disease. That's why it's so important that we take every step at our disposal."

That includes proper handwashing, staying home if sick and getting vaccinated if in the high-risk groups when the novel H1N1 vaccine becomes available, which is expected to start in mid-October, Dr. Frieden said.

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