A minor outbreak of swine flu at USC Aiken should serve as a reminder to South Carolinians not to be lulled into complacency by the least severe winter flu season in years, health officials warn.
The H1N1 virus is still out there, and if it follows historical trends, another wave of infections is likely in spring or summer, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Jerry Gibson.
"It's not totally gone," Gibson said. "We've had a little flare-up in Aiken County, and that underscores that we are just in a lull now."
The USC Aiken student health center, after seeing few influenzalike cases in January, has logged 27 in the past month, according to Cindy Gelinas, interim director of the center. As the cases mounted, health care officials at the school did lab tests on samples from four sick students late in February. All four tests came back positive for the H1N1 virus, Gibson said.
(The student health center at the much larger USC campus in Columbia has logged 20 positive flu tests in the past seven weeks, according to USC officials. Though those samples weren't tested for H1N1, almost all flu in the area is that virus.)
The Aiken victims all recovered without hospitalization. "If they get Tamiflu, they're good in a couple of days," Gelinas said.
In general, the Aiken illnesses are no cause for alarm, but health officials hope they inspire people to take advantage of the readily available H1N1 vaccine. Shots are free at county health clinics and less than $20 at many pharmacies and physicians' offices.
People haven't been flocking to vaccine clinics, in part because they haven't seen many people getting sick with the flu this winter. Last year, seasonal flu spiked in South Carolina in early February. This year, there was no February spike in either seasonal flu or the H1N1 flu.
The lack of seasonal flu this winter wasn't a surprise.
"When we get a new pandemic, it seems to drive out other A viruses," Gibson said. "It has in all four recorded pandemics (1889-90, 1918-20, 1957-58 and 1968-69), and by gosh it looks like that's what's happening now."
But even without a seasonal flu outbreak, South Carolina is one of three states - Georgia and Alabama are the others - where H1N1 activity is considered in the "regional" category. On the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flu activity scale, widespread is the worst classification, followed by regional, local, sporadic or no activity. Flu isn't widespread in any states.
History indicates the H1N1 pandemic is far from over. The past flu pandemics have featured waves of illness over two to three years. The recent H1N1 virus first popped up in Mexico last winter, hit a small spike in the U.S. in late spring and spiked to widespread activity throughout the country in the fall.
Next year's flu vaccine will be designed to deal with H1N1 and seasonal flu.