Alabama health officials are investigating a cluster of severe respiratory infections from an unknown origin centered around the Dothan area and have asked the state's health providers to be alert for and report similar cases.
In a press release yesterday the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) said seven people have been hospitalized with similar symptoms: fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Two of the patients have died. The ADPH said it and the Houston County Health Department are conducting the investigation and have consulted with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dothan, in Houston County, is in the southeastern corner of Alabama near both Georgia and Florida. A report from local TV news station WSFA said hospitalizations in the cluster began on May 16 at the city's Southeast Alabama Medical Center.
An ADPH alert to health providers said the first three cases were flagged on May 16 by a pulmonologist who reported that three patients with similar symptoms were on ventilators and had no known cause for their illness.
Tests on samples sent that day to the ADPH clinical lab revealed on May 17 the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus in one of the patients, who died the following day. Another patient who was transferred to the same facility and placed on a ventilator died on May 19.
Polymerase chain reaction flu panel testing on three other patients who were admitted yielded one H3 influenza positive. The ADPH said though two patients have tested positive for influenza, it's unclear what role the viruses played in the cluster illnesses.
So far no epidemiologic links have been found among the patients, the ADPH said.I've seen one speculation, on a site of doubtful credibility, that the outbreak could be connected to nearby Fort Rucker, which presumably sees some traffic to and from various Middle East countries. But so do many other US military bases, so why would southeast Alabama be the only region to see an outbreak of undiagnosed respiratory disease?