Mystery illness hospitalizes seven, kills two in southeast Alabama

Published 11:00 pm Tuesday, May 21, 2013

State health officials are investing a cluster of unidentified respiratory illnesses that have sent seven people to the hospital and left two dead in southeast Alabama.

Dr. Mary McIntyre, an assistant sate health officer for disease control and prevention with the Alabama Department of Public Health, said Tuesday the seven reported cases are all linked to one hospital in Dothan.

“So far, they have all been reported at one hospital,” she said. “Right now, we are in the process of determining how much of a surrounding area we are going to be including in the notification area.

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Houston County Health Department officials released news of the illnesses during a press conference on Tuesday morning. During the conference, the Houston County officials said the illnesses date back as far as April 19 and as recently as Monday. All come from a 10-county area of Southeast Alabama, and five of the seven remained hospitalized on Tuesday, including one in intensive care. Officials did not provide specifics on the counties.

“We don’t have any details about that,” she said. “As far as our report goes, these seven people were all admitted to one hospital in Dothan. They were having respiratory symptoms and we’ve performed quick tests … and have sent results to the state for additional testing.”

McIntyre said two patients tested positive in initial testing for influenza virus: one for H1N1 and one for influenza A. In its official news release, the ADPH identified cases as “a cluster of respiratory illnesses of unknown origin.”

“Right now, we’re doing additional testing,” McIntyre said. “We don’t know what it is at this point.”

Testing is being conducted by the ADPH Bureau of Clinical Laboratories and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Respiratory Laboratory. Both agencies have recommended the hospital use respiratory precautions, which include the staff using N95 masks when caring for patients presenting with respiratory symptoms.

Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath, all of which can be associated with influenza.

“And it’s important for people to remember that just because it’s not January, February or March we can still have an influenza outbreak,” McIntyre said. “We’re trying to get people to understand if they are symptomatic to do what they would do if they had the known flu.”