Tue, Feb 22, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Flu may turn nasty: doctors

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Even as Taiwan is still reeling under the annual flu onslaught, the disease is now leading to a severe and rare pneumonia which may cause a pandemic, doctors warned yesterday.

"Before, we thought we can rein in the flu epidemic. It is a pricklier issue this year, as we saw rare cases of viral pneumonia appear recently," Hsieh Szu-min (謝思民), an infectious-disease specialist from the National Taiwan University Hospital, said yesterday.

Hsieh mentioned a case in which a flu patient had suffered from fever for 10 days and, after an X-ray examination, one of his lungs was found to be infected by a virus.

"Usually we see more incidences of bacterial pneumonia than viral pneumonia. The problem is that we are seeing an increase in viral pneumonia cases, which is a lung infection that we have little experience with," Hsieh said.

"We don't even know if the antiviral treatment will work on the viral pneumonia," he said.

Although the mortality rate of viral pneumonia is not very high, combining it with flu complications could still unleash a pandemic.

"Like SARS, in the case of viral pneumonia, the virus will attack the lungs. The situation is precarious given the fact that the flu affects at least tens of thousands each year. Even if the fatality rate is as low as one in a 100 patients, we could be faced with grim consequences," Hsieh said.

However, the case of viral pneumonia has not yet been confirmed by the NTU Hospital's lab. Because many patients with flu-related pneumonia were transferred from other hospitals, Hsieh said, the NTU Hospital could not collect samples from patients in time to develop a virus in the lab. The hospital is now conducting virus isolation and identification procedures and is waiting for results.

"We haven't confirmed whether this is a case of viral pneumonia, let alone its link with influenza," the NTU Hospital's infectious-disease department chief Chang Shang-chwen (張上淳) was quoted as saying.

Health officials also downplayed the pneumonia's threat.

"As we are waiting for the results of the lab analysis, we can't say a flu pandemic is looming," said Yan Jer-jea (顏哲傑), the director of the Center for Disease Control's immunization division.

According to the Center's latest flu report, about 68 percent of the 3,790 patients examined were not infected with the virus, whereas 453 patients, or 13.1 percent of the total patients examined, were confirmed to be infected.

Other viruses, like the cytomegalovirus, adenovirus and enterovirus, were present in 19 percent of the patients examined.

Yeh urged people at risk to get flu shots as soon as possible, as the Center still has over 10,000 doses of flu vaccines left.

"Unvaccinated people are 2.44 times more likely to get the flu than those that were vaccinated. Although we are already in the peak season, it is never too late to get the jab," he said.

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