- The Washington Times - Monday, November 8, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sales of over-the-counter drugs to treat the flu may help the government more quickly spot local outbreaks.

The government now receives figures representing 80 percent of sales of remedies for cold symptoms and diarrhea, for example, in an effort to spot disease trends.

A sudden spike in sales of those products “might be a hint that flu is emerging,” the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters yesterday.

“It’s a clue. And we don’t know if it’s going to be a useful clue or not,” Dr. Julie Gerberding said during the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting. “We’re just learning this year.”

The experiment comes as the United States struggles with a shortage of flu vaccine caused by contamination problems at a Chiron Corp. plant in Britain, where 48 million doses destined for the United States were quarantined.

This year’s flu season appears to be starting slowly, Dr. Gerberding said. Twenty-eight states are reporting cases, including Texas and two New York nursing homes. Not one is reporting widespread flu activity. The remainder of states and the District, however, have not recorded a single flu case.

“We’re not getting off to a fast start,” she said, adding that that did not mean this year’s season would remain light. “Flu is so unpredictable. I’m not making any projections whatsoever,” she said.

As Americans scramble for scarce doses of flu vaccine, the nation’s top public health agency has another worry — bird flu — on which Dr. Gerberding says people are not particularly focused.

“We are. And we are very concerned,” she said.

Her agency is monitoring the spread of avian flu in Asia — where the deadly virus continues to leap from animals to humans — to gauge whether the strain is evolving.

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