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Hawaii: Labs prepare for flu threat

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  • Hawaii: Labs prepare for flu threat


    Labs prepare for flu threat
    More facilities can conduct accurate tests for influenza strains
    By Helen Altonn

    The state's influenza testing capabilities have been increased to prepare for a potentially severe influenza season or pandemic, health officials report.

    Even though Hawaii's 2007-08 flu season has been mild to moderate, health officials are taking nothing for granted.

    The state Department of Health is working with diagnostic laboratories at Kaiser Permanente, Clinical Laboratories of Hawaii and Diagnostic Laboratory Services to provide advanced molecular testing for influenza.

    "The important work of these private labs will help better identify, quickly verify and greatly assist in the monitoring of flu cases each year," state Health Director Chiyome Fukino said in a news release.

    The state has more than doubled its flu testing capacity from two to five laboratories, said Dr. Chris Whelen, state Laboratories Division chief.

    He said the private laboratories "are helping to maximize our state's ability to perform flu testing and efficiently use and rotate test supply stockpiles, which expire after about one year."

    "The Health Department offered up to $150,000 in federal money and technical assistance to the collaborating laboratories to buy equipment and supplies for advanced molecular flu tests.

    The laboratories established testing services and agreed to store and rotate supplies over the next five years to test at least 1,000 patients at any time.

    Medical directors at the laboratories said in a news release they are excited to join the Health Department to improve the state's influenza surveillance and pandemic preparedness.

    The new tests "give doctors the ability to detect and identify the flu virus in its early stages to better manage their patients with flulike illness," said Dr. Glenn Furuya, Clinical Laboratories of Hawaii. "With new treatments for flu becoming available, earlier and more accurate test results provide invaluable information for physicians."

    "More accurate influenza testing previously was available only at the state laboratory and Tripler Amy Medical Center, the Department of Health said. Local testing was limited to the widely used rapid antigen test, which is less accurate.

    Whelen said rapid antigen tests will still be important for peak season screening and in remote locations, "but they are not good enough to rule out influenza for much of the year."

    "Sarah Park, deputy chief of the Health Department's Disease Outbreak and Control Division, said in an interview that an upswing of flu activity occurred about mid-January, but it was not reflected until early February, she said. The peak was probably early in March, she said.

    "It looks like we're on a downswing, but we don't like to say for certain until we're well past."

    "Representatives of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection and other states at a recent meeting in Atlanta remarked at how late the flu season was this year in Hawaii and across the mainland, Park said.

    "We've been pretty lucky out here in Hawaii, given our exposure to so many travelers," she said. "Maybe some prevention measures are sinking in. People are thinking of washing their hands."

    "The Health Department also has emphasized influenza prevention, providing free vaccinations to more than 60,000 isle students and 9,000 faculty and staff from October through January. It was the first statewide vaccination program, called "Protect Hawaii's Keiki: Stop Flu at School."