For Immediate Release
September 21, 2009

KDHE Office of Communications, 785-296-0461

A Column from Jason Eberhart-Phillips, MD, MPH
Kansas State Health Officer and Director of Health
Kansas Department of Health and Environment

Last week, an editorial in a Kansas newspaper questioned the changes we at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) made in our H1N1 testing procedures. 

The editorial called the changes an “about-face on the perspective of the disease” and concluded that based on the changes that the disease is not as serious as we once thought.  The editorial implied that if the virus is presenting a serious threat, health officials should continue to be vigilant in tracking cases and keeping the public informed of its activity, pattern of growth and outcomes for patients.

Although the virus does not usually produce severe disease, its rapid global spread shows that it has adapted remarkably well to humans.  And this means that many more people will get sick from it than what we typically see with seasonal flu.  And, unfortunately, it also means that we will see more deaths.  What is also remarkable about this new virus is who it is affecting the most – young children and adults.  This is very different than seasonal flu.  So I would agree that it is extremely important for us to track the disease and keep the public informed, and in fact I argue, that in our transitioned methods of testing, we are doing just that.

With the assistance of our public health partners across the state we have built a network of approximately 50 outpatient health care facilities to create an enhanced statewide flu surveillance network.  In a typical flu season we have maintained a network of approximately 25 sites, but because of the need for additional surveillance related to H1N1 we’ve created an expanded network of sites.  Hospitals throughout the state are also participating in influenza surveillance to help us monitor the impact of this virus.

Each week, those participating in this network submit information to KDHE on the percentage of patients they are seeing with influenza-like illness.  They are also submitting a random sampling of specimens for testing in our state laboratory. 

What this does is allow us, in an organized and meaningful way, to look at the impact of the disease and what population groups it is affecting the most, as well as the geographic spread.  This information will allow us to make the best public health recommendations for the state of Kansas.

This modified procedure for testing isn’t out of the norm, and in fact we have based our decisions on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which indicates that not all people with suspected cases of the H1N1 virus need to have laboratory confirmation.

It is critical for the public to know that we are still taking this disease very seriously and are working on a daily basis to better understand it and reduce the spread in Kansas.

It’s also critical for Kansans to know that any confirmatory testing done on an individual level would not affect the treatment and advice given to patients by health care providers.

We know that the disease is here in our state and we all must work together to help prevent its spread until the vaccine arrives.  This means that people who are experiencing flu-like symptoms should stay home, rest and drink plenty of fluids so that they can recover without spreading the virus to others.  And we all must continue to practice good hygiene by washing our hands and covering our coughs.

I urge all Kansans to stay informed about H1N1 and please know that we at KDHE continue to take the virus seriously.