Swine flu patient dies in Medford

A Klamath County man died Saturday at Rogue Valley Medical Center of complications from the H1N1 virus.

Klamath County public health officials confirmed the death Monday.

The man's name has not been released, but he has been described as a 33-year-old resident of the Sprague River area, east of Klamath Falls.

The man was admitted to RVMC last week and had been in the hospital's critical care unit, said Jo Lynn Wallace, RVMC vice president for patient care.

He was the first confirmed case in Klamath County of the virus that has been called swine flu, but which scientists are now calling "novel H1N1."

It is the sixth known death in Oregon from the virus since it was identified this spring.

The Oregon Public Health Laboratory has identified 530 confirmed cases of H1N1 in the state.

Wallace said the hospital gave the antiviral drug Tamiflu to about 20 staff members who had contact with the man. The drug is effective against the H1N1 virus but it must be administered before full-blown symptoms develop to be effective.

Wallace said hospital staff who performed respiratory care for the Klamath County man wore sophisticated respirators to guard against exposure to the moisture droplets expelled in coughing that are thought to spread the virus.

Other staff members wore surgical masks while they were in the patient's room and discarded the masks in the room as they left to prevent carrying the virus to other areas of the hospital, Wallace said.

She said hospital staff have been reminded to observe hand-washing protocols and other precautions to prevent the spread of viruses such as H1N1. Workers must wash their hands before they enter a patient's room, and wash again as they leave.

She said patients who have flu-like symptoms must wear a surgical mask if they leave their room. Medical equipment that enters such a patient's room must be disinfected when it is brought out because moisture droplets that are expelled in coughing could infect someone else.

Precautions extend to visitors, too, Wallace said. People who have flu-like symptoms are asked not to visit family members or friends who are hospitalized. "It's the little things that are critically important," she said.

The virus's continued presence during what is traditionally not the active flu season has been a source of concern for public health officials. As of Friday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed 43,771 confirmed or probable cases of the virus and 302 deaths. The virus has been spreading at summer camps and military academies and other settings where people from different parts of the country come together.

It's very unusual to have so much transmission of influenza during the summer season, according to Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center For Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

"I think it's a testament to how susceptible people are to this virus," Schuchat said during a press briefing Friday.

The people who are falling ill with the H1N1 virus are generally younger than the victims of ordinary seasonal influenza, said Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County's medical officer.

Shames noted that CDC data indicates the median age of the H1N1 cases has been 12 years. (The median means as many cases have been found in people under age 12 as over age 12.) The median age for people who have been hospitalized for H1N1 is 20 years, and the median age for H1N1 deaths has been 37.

"It looks as if the elderly have some protection," he said, because fewer in that age range are getting sick, fewer are dying and fewer are being hospitalized.

Shames said the virus apparently behaves differently from person to person. The same virus that killed the Klamath County man infected several local students traveling in China with a group from St. Mary's School, but their symptoms were so minor they didn't seem to know they were ill.

He said public health officials expect the virus to become more active in the fall. No one knows how severe the flu season may be, but it's likely that more people will be sick than during an ordinary seasonal flu outbreak. Scientists are making a vaccine, but it may not be available before flu season begins.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail:bkettler@mailtribune.com.

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