Three more people from southeast Alabama have fallen ill from a mystery disease since state health officials alerted the media Wednesday that an investigation into the cause of the illness was underway. To date, 10 people have been hospitalized, two of whom have died, since April 19. All patients had the same flu-like symptoms including cough, fever, shortness of breath and “’something’ on their chest x-rays,” said Dr. Mary McIntyre, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Public Health.
It is not known where in Alabama the three latest patients are from, but the original seven are from Barbour, Coffee, Dale, Geneva, Henry, Houston and Pike counties. Of the first seven to become ill, two have died, two have been released from the hospital, and three remain hospitalized.
Tests are currently underway to determine the source of the illnesses and whether they are related. At least one patient tested positive for the H1N1 flu virus, also known as the swine flu. Another tested positive for type A influenza. Some patients reportedly had “co-morbidities” such as smoking, COPD and morbid obesity. The two patients who died had also developed pneumonia.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials are testing samples taken from patients to determine if there is an epidemiological link, however Dr. Richard Besser, chief health and medical editor for ABC News, says it is very possible that the illnesses are merely a coincidence. “Temporal clustering can make something look like an outbreak. Good science will tell you whether it is,” he said.
The CDC is expected to have results as early as Thursday. Until then, hospital officials have been told to treat the illnesses as if they are the flu and to use respiratory precautions such as requiring staff to use N95 masks while caring for patients presenting with similar symptoms.