Politics & Government

N.C. health chief cites H1N1 flu in concerns over budget cuts

RALEIGH — Deep state budget cuts could strip crucial resources from public health agencies and hospitals just in time for the expected arrival of a potentially nastier version of the H1N1 flu virus this fall, North Carolina's public health chief warned Thursday.

Dr. Jeffrey Engel, director of the N.C. Division of Public Health, said he expects a second strain of the unique virus will surface as colder weather starts to chase people indoors, making it easier to spread flu in offices, schools and other public places.

This second strain could be worse than the relatively mild H1N1 virus now circulating the globe, Engel said, causing more people to get sick enough to require hospitalization. That would place a heavy strain on public health departments and hospitals that he says already lack sufficient resources and may also be dealing with severe cases of seasonal flu.

If a second strain of the H1N1 flu virus causes a more severe pandemic, those hospitals would likely see a dramatic increase in emergency room patients, exacerbated by the uninsured who can't afford to get treated elsewhere.

This threat makes potential budget cuts now under consideration in the N.C. House to be particularly worrisome, said Engel. House Democrats are expected to unveil a plan next week to cut thousands of state jobs.

"If you think emergency room wait times are bad now, just wait until a pandemic spreads," Engel said. "The perfect storm would be mass budget cuts and a widespread pandemic. And all jobs are being threatened by state budgets."

The H1N1 virus is genetically different from the seasonal flu strains familiar to human immune systems. That difference makes existing flu vaccines ineffective. The version now circulating is relatively mild, causing symptoms similar to seasonal flu, and responds well to antiviral drugs.

But public health officials and scientists point to past global outbreaks, including the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed as many as 50 million people worldwide. In that and less deadly pandemics in 1957 and 1968, a mild flu virus evolved into something more virulent.

Five new cases of the virus were confirmed in North Carolina on Thursday, bringing the state's total number of cases to 35, state health officials said.

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