NU Online News Service, May 5, 2:59 p.m. EDT
There is a good chance H1N1 flu virus will mutate and come back to the United States as a killer strain in the fall, experts convened by an insurance brokerage advised today.
That would be the case if the virus follows the course of the deadly 1918 flu attack, which killed 65,000 persons in the United States when a mild wave of the illness in the spring "was followed by a severe wave in the fall," said Dr. Gisele Norris, national director of Aon Healthcare's Alternative Risk Transfer practice.
She and others commented during a teleconference convened by Aon Risk Services and Aon Consulting that the potential return of a more potent virus means companies now investing in preparing for a pandemic will not be wasting their time.
Ms. Norris, , said there is a "high probability" that the H1N1 outbreak in Mexico, which appears to be waning, will make a return after shutdowns there end, because the Southern hemisphere is entering flu season, which will influence events in North America.
At this point, the experts said there is a lack of knowledge that limits them in the advice they can give.
Theresa Brown of Sandia National laboratoriesMs. Brown said that because little is known how the strain may evolve, it is not known if existing antiviral medicines, such as Tamiflu and Relenza, will be effective.
She said that besides social avoidance, hand washing and care in coughing, the key strategy will be to close schools before 1 percent of the population is affected.
Schools were labeled "high transmission points" and the experts observed that it would do little good to shutter businesses if schools remain open.
In the event of a high mortality variety of flu, drastic measures would have to be taken. Closures, they said, would probably last for six months, which is the estimate for the length of time it would take to develop an effective vaccine and create enough of the medicine for distribution.
The process of developing an H1N1 vaccine is underway now, but no decision has been made about whether it will be deployed as part of next year's seasonal vaccine, it was explained.
Regarding the wearing of protective masks, conferees were advised that the effectiveness of such devices as well as wearing respirators is currently unknown.
Ms. Brown said that using a mask appropriately is difficult because wearers are "taking it off; you're touching it."
The best advice given for firms with employees suspected of possible flu exposure was to have the person work from home and be absent for at least three days.
Companies were advised to plan for schedules allowing employees with children to work a different shift, so one or another spouse could remain at home during a portion of the day to care for a child whose school is closed.