H1N1 flu causes concern: 3 deaths put area health officials on alert
by Diana Washington Valdez \ El Paso Times
Posted: 03/29/2011 12:00:00 AM MDT
El Paso and Juárez health officials expressed concern on Monday about a potential H1N1 flu virus outbreak that could have played a role in three deaths on both sides of the border.
El Paso city health officials said the virus was a secondary factor in February's death of a 76-year-old El Paso man who had chronic health problems.
"We want to make sure the community realizes how serious we are taking this investigation, but we also want to make sure there is no unnecessary alarm throughout the region," said Fernando Gonzalez, epidemiologist for the city's Department of Public Health.
"This recent death is not a case of a seemingly healthy individual who contracted the diseases, became ill and died as a result."
Gonzalez added, "Much like we saw with H1N1 cases in 2009, this elderly man was someone who was sick and whose body could not overcome various illnesses, including the H1N1 flu strain."
In Juárez, health officials issued an alert after two people died and others came down with a flu-like illness they suspected was caused by H1N1.
Concerns over a new H1N1 outbreak prompted Chihuahua officials to stress that several people who contracted flu-like symptoms visited either New Mexico or Texas or were in contact with people from the U.S. side of the border.
Chihuahua state health officials confirmed Monday that H1N1 was a factor in two recent deaths and also confirmed H1N1 flu cases reported since March 24. Six other cases proved negative for the virus.
Hector Puertas Rincones, director of the Chihuahua Health District 2, said 13 suspected H1N1 flu cases were reported this month. Several Juárez police traffic officers were among those who fell ill.
El Paso health officials said El Paso had 357 confirmed flu cases in January, three of them were H1N1 cases. In February, El Paso had 302 flu cases, including 26 for the H1N1 virus. This month, the city reported 126 flu cases.
"While those numbers are significantly higher than the number of cases reported during this same time in 2009, when the H1N1 influenza pandemic was noted, the department is highlighting important contributing factors," El Paso health officials said in a statement.
Those factors included better flu testing, detection and reporting by medical providers.
However, the lack of free flu vaccine also may have contributed to the spike.
City Department of Public Health spokesman Armando Saldivar said that due to a lack of funding, the city's immunization clinics were able to administer free flu vaccine only to youths 18 years old and younger.
This year's combined flu vaccine is supposed to protect against the seasonal flu and H1N1 flu viruses. During the global H1N1 pandemic, the U.S. federal government provided thousands of free H1N1 flu virus vaccine doses to communities throughout the nation.
"In light of the recently released flu statistics, and because of growing concern regarding the virus in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, the city of El Paso Department of Public Health continues to remind residents in El Paso that preventing the spread of influenza is a major priority," city officials said in a statement.
Last week, El Paso health official Dr. Hector Ocaranza said "there is no indication that the flu viruses circulating in our community are novel or more aggressive than strains we have seen in the past."
Dusty Warden, outreach coordinator for Immunize El Paso, a vaccine provider, said his office has flu vaccine available for children and adults.
Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hundreds of people received an H1N1 flu vaccine Monday at the Centro de Salud clinic in Juárez. Health officials in Juárez issued an alert after H1N1 flu was suspected in the deaths of two people. In El Paso, concerns are tempered, though officials believe the flu was a secondary factor in the February death of a 76-year-old man.