Alabama mystery illness solved: it's common flu

Mike Stobbe and Kathy Wingard, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- Health officials investigating a cluster of mysterious illnesses in Alabama closed their investigation Thursday after determining the illnesses were unrelated and no new bacteria or viruses were involved.

The investigation involved 10 people who became sick and were admitted to hospitals in Dothan and Luverne in southeast Alabama. Two died, six remained hospitalized Thursday, and two had been released, state Health Officer Don Williamson said. The 10 range in age from 24 to 87.

Williamson said health officials took extraordinary caution due to the emergence of two viruses, including the new H7NP, in other countries. Southeast Alabama is home to a military base and several aircraft plants that have frequent international travel.

"We looked extremely hard. This represents the way the system is supposed to work," Williamson said. Testing at a state lab and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed different groups of pathogens were present. Four of the patients had a rhinovirus, the same family of germs that causes the common cold. Three had bacterial-based pneumonias and others had influenza A and H1N1.

Although it was not known whether the sufferers had gotten flu shots, the types of illnesses that were contracted were covered by this year's vaccine.

Williamson said the flu pandemic of 2008-09 showed that flu cases are present in Alabama throughout the year. It is uncommon, but not unheard of, for small outbreaks to occur in the spring and summer, he said.

Mysterious illnesses are always unnerving, but the cluster report came at a particularly sensitive time. Health officials have been monitoring two deadly new illnesses that recently surfaced in different parts of the world — one a deadly form of bird flu that has appeared in China, the other a SARS-like coronavirus that seems to have originated in the Middle East.

The bird flu has caused 131 illnesses and 32 deaths since the beginning of the year, according to the World Health Organization. The SARS-like virus (called MERS) has been identified as the cause of 44 illnesses, including 22 deaths, the WHO said.

Neither seems to be highly contagious so far, and neither illness has been reported in the United States. But in a world of daily international air travel, it's always possible that a new germ of concern will hitchhike on an infected globetrotter and enter this country.

The CDC tested the Alabama patients for MERS, for different forms of flu and for more than a dozen other illnesses, the agency spokeswoman said.

Dr. Mary McIntyre, head of infectious diseases for the state public health agency, said the precautions taken by Alabama were worthwhile. She said using the same protocol, a pediatrician in north Alabama last year observed a new Coxsackie virus, a type of hand, foot and mouth disease in children. By identifying the new strain, the disease was able to be slowed and children treated in other states.