Oregon lab battles H1N1 bug

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SPRINGFIELD — The influenza virus has an enemy in Dr. Robert Liao and his seven employees.

Liao directs the microbiology lab tucked in PeaceHealth Laboratories' Riverbend Annex on International Way. The lab can not only perform elaborate tests to verify whether a patient has the serious and sometimes fatal respiratory influenza virus, but can decipher its genetic makeup.

The lab has been busy in recent weeks as the seasonal flu nears its peak, with Oregon health officials urging people to get vaccinated if they haven't already done so.

"It's been a bad year for the flu," Liao said Tuesday. "There are a lot of flu cases."

Dr. Patrick Luedtke, Lane County's public health officer, said information his office has received shows the predominant flu strain this season is H1N1.

"We're on the steep part of the curve right now for flu in this county," he said.

Health officials said this flu season marks the first time the H1N1 strain has circulated at high levels since it reached pandemic levels in 2009.

The strain is worrisome because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported it's being shown to cause more illness in otherwise healthy children and young adults. A 5-year-old Eugene boy, Ronan Burgess, died from the influenza virus late last month. He had been vaccinated, but the vaccine doesn't prevent the flu in every case.

Troubling to public health advocates is the low vaccination rates among younger Americans as cases of H1N1 become widespread.

An analysis by the nonprofit Trust for America's Health found that during the last flu season, about one-third of adults ages 18 to 64 were vaccinated.

"The trend of low vaccination rates among younger adults is particularly troubling this year, when they are more at risk than usual for the effects of the H1N1 strain of flu that's circulating," Dr. Jeffrey Levi, the organization's executive director, stated in a news release.

A lot has changed in the four years since public health officials raced to develop a vaccine for the new H1N1 strain. The crisis results in vaccine shortages, widespread public concern and intensive media coverage.

This time around, health officials say, the vaccine is abundant. Public alarm appears more muted as H1N1 has circulated through the population for several years, albeit at lower levels.

Doctors often administer a rapid test to patients who complain of flu-like symptoms, but studies have shown these tests can be unreliable. Flu typically generates severe aches, intense coughing and a moderate or high fever, while the common cold is much milder. Because of the unreliability of the quick flu test, physicians may treat patients anyway whose tests are negative with medication.

Liao's lab offers far more elaborate tests that can verify the presence of the virus and its genetic makeup, but they take more time and cost more money.

Liao's lab is tucked in the 50,000-square-foot laboratory -- the former Sony CD manufacturing plant -- that runs more than 1 million tests a year on collected blood, tissue and other specimens. Liao's lab runs a host of tests for viral and bacterial infections, including HIV, hepatitis B and C, and MRSA, the so-called "superbug" that is resistant to a common antibiotic.

"We're doing a lot more testing right now, because after (the) 2009 (outbreak), the message really out there" that flu testing needed to be more reliable, Liao said.

With these tests, lab technicians use nifty chemistry to break open cells that are collected using a swab from deep in a patients nasal passage, in an attempt to extract any genetic material from the flu virus that may be wreaking havoc within.

Technicians then prod the genetic material to replicate itself many times over. This so-called "amplification" makes it easier to detect the virus.

"It allows us to find very small amounts of the virus in the specimen," Liao explained.

And, finally, technicians use processes so the genetic material of the flu virus literally lights up for detection.

With the more sophisticated tests, technicians are able to identify the specific variant of the flu -- distinguishing H1N1 from other flu viruses.

Luedtk said flu will continue to circulate in the area until May, so there's plenty of time for residents to get vaccinated.

"We have four months of flu left, and there's plenty of vaccine, and people should get themselves protected, if not for themselves then for their community."

Health experts say that without extensive community-wide vaccination, some people still contract the virus, don't become particularly sick themselves, yet go around unwittingly spreading it to others.