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Flu outbreaks in south Alabama towns unrelated

By M.J. Ellington
DAILY Staff Writer (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — Two southeast Alabama towns less than 25 miles apart have flu outbreaks, but state health officials say the outbreaks are from different strains of the disease and unrelated.

That means that people with influenza A H1N1 in Ozark did not pass on the bug to their neighbors in Dothan, less than 25 miles to the south. The three confirmed Dothan cases of influenza B Shanghai type turned up in the last week.

State health officials do not really know if such an early outbreak is unusual. This is the first year since the state began tracking influenza cases year around. There are no reports of flu north of Dale County where Ozark is located.

"We still do not know if this has any significance for the rest of the state," said Alabama Department of Public Health Epidemiology Division Director Fred Grady. "But this means two flu outbreaks. It's got our antenna up."

Grady recommended that Alabamians check with their doctor to see if they should get a flu shot. Some private doctors in the state have flu vaccine already, but Grady said the state is weeks away from flu shot clinics usually done in late October or November. He said people who have respiratory illness should cover their mouths when they cough, ideally by coughing into their elbow instead of their hands, and wash their hands often.

The number of official cases in Ozark continues to rise slightly with about 14 reported confirmed cases Tuesday compared to 11 cases last week. But Grady said once the state knows the disease is in an area, doctors there often treat the symptoms and do not report to the state.

The Ozark strain of the flu first appeared in three children at an Ozark pediatrician's office in August. Other cases developed initially in family members of the children. Grady said his office has no reports of more school absences or more hospitalizations related to the flu in the area.

Ozark City Schools Superintendent Dan Payant said Tuesday that the school system is not recording an unusual number of absences. At most, Payant estimates a 5 percent increase in absences at the peak of the outbreak and he believes absences are back at or below normal levels this week.

"What sparked the interest was a cautionary note we sent home to parents so they would know flu arrived early this year," Payant said. "It is a note we send home every year, just earlier this time."

But Grady said the state will look for links that might explain the outbreak. Ozark is home to Fort Rucker, a U.S. Army base with frequent flights to and from other parts of the world.

Grady wants doctors in other parts of the state to culture their patients suspected of having the flu and send the cultures to public health in Montgomery for analysis.

Mobile reported one case of influenza B, Hong Kong strain in August, but Dr. Don Williamson, state health officer, said the single case was not a cause for concern. No other cases turned up in Mobile.

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