May 1, 2009

VMC leadership urges calm in the swine flu storm

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William Schaffner, M.D., participates in an interview with ABC-TV’s Good Morning America broadcast from VUStar, Vanderbilt’s state-of-the-art on-campus satellite broadcast facility operated by the University News Service.

VMC leadership urges calm in the swine flu storm

With the H1N1 virus now affecting adults and children in nine countries including the United States, the outbreak of the disease, commonly known as swine flu, is receiving nearly constant news coverage. But a worried public’s heightened sense of awareness is having an unintended effect at Vanderbilt Medical Center where doctors’ offices are experiencing a high volume of phone calls from people asking whether they should see their doctor.

Corey Slovis, M.D.

Corey Slovis, M.D.

Tom Talbot, M.D., M.P.H.

Tom Talbot, M.D., M.P.H.

VMC leadership wants the Medical Center’s faculty, staff and patients to know one thing: there’s no reason for panic.

There is a growing concern among physicians that public fear over the flu outbreak will begin to needlessly draw people into emergency departments and clinics after the World Health Organization raised its alert level earlier this week to five on its six-level scale.

The increased alert level means that the organization believes the swine flu is capable of significant human-to-human transmission, and is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent.

As of Thursday, May 7, 23 countries have officially reported 2,099 cases of swine flu and 642 cases have been confirmed in 41 states in the United States. There are 2 confirmed cases in Tennessee. There are 2 confirmed deaths in the United States. Mexico has reported 1,112 confirmed human cases of infection including 42 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

And Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen announced on Wednesday that a Williamson County child who attends Nashville’s Harding Academy has the first suspected case of the H1N1 virus in Tennessee. The school is closing for a week.

“Currently, there are not any identified cases of swine flu in Nashville or in Tennessee. Coming to the Emergency Department with vague symptoms or aches may be more dangerous than staying home,” said Corey Slovis, M.D., chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at VUMC, in an e-mail sent to faculty and staff.  “Unnecessarily sitting in an emergency department's crowded waiting room makes little sense, and exposes a relatively healthy person to viral and bacterial infections others in the waiting room might be spreading.”

Slovis says those who are otherwise in good health should only come to an emergency department for the flu if they are seriously ill with such symptoms as shortness of breath, inability to keep any fluids down, severe weakness or confusion.  

“While the spread of a new strain of influenza is concerning, it is no cause for extreme alarm or panic,” said Tom Talbot, M.D., M.P.H., chief hospital epidemiologist, also in an e-mail message. “Vanderbilt Medical Center leadership, in collaboration with the Department of Infection Control and Prevention and the Office of Emergency Preparedness, are closely monitoring the current situation and will update our employees and faculty as new information emerges,” he said.

At this stage, it is important to follow recommendations put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and to avoid undue panic or worry, Talbot said.  “Currently our message to staff is ‘be prepared, not scared.’”

With the identification of swine flu in other parts of the country, experts at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt have increased efforts to monitor children in the hospital, clinics and emergency department for influenza. Strains detected in children in Nashville have been sent to the CDC for further study, but no cases have been identified in Nashville. Kathryn Edwards, M.D., professor of Pediatrics and principal investigator for studies of influenza at Vanderbilt, said that the National Institutes of Health has asked Vanderbilt investigators to soon be ready to test swine flu vaccines.

And the Vanderbilt Medical Center name has been front and center in national media stories over the past week. William Schaffner, M.D., chair of Preventive Medicine, has been interviewed by numerous television, radio and print outlets on a daily basis since last Friday concerning the swine flu outbreak. The long list includes ABC Good Morning America, CBS Evening News, NBC News Channel, NBC Nightly News, CNN International, CTV (Canadian Television), ABC News, CNN Headline News, CNBC, Associated Press national, New York Times, USA Today, Web MD, Bloomberg,,, and NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

For frequently asked questions about swine flu, click here.

For guidelines from VUMC leadership, click here.