WASHINGTON – A cough, a sniffle, a mild fever: It looks like the flu, but it could be anthrax.
To avoid confusion, Maryland health officials are urging people to get their flu shots this season, even though that vaccine itself is scarce right now.
“It will sort of ease of the crowds at hospitals” if fewer people come down with the flu, which will make it easier for emergency room staffs to handle other cases, said J.B. Hanson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Those cases could include anthrax, real or perceived. But that’s not the reason to get a flu shot, officials said.
“No, the flu shot will not keep you from getting anthrax, but it might help you and your doctor more quickly diagnose what’s causing the sniffles and the sneezes,” said Eric Baugh, medical director for CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.
“The symptoms for anthrax and the flu are similar,” he said. “If you’ve had a flu shot, you’re less likely to be infected by the common flu bug.”
State health officials said that their latest call for flu vaccinations is not a reversal of a previous policy, which urged healthy people to delay vaccination so the elderly and ill could get the earliest doses of what has been a limited supply.
“We’re not telling other people they can’t have their shot,” Hanson said. “There is a responsibility to each other that those who are most in need will be served first.”
But county health officials were surprised at what they called mixed signals from the state.
“Why would you say everybody go and get your flu vaccine when it hasn’t even been shipped yet?” asked Vicki Duke, nursing director for the Howard County Health Department.
“We’re being told to only administer to the high-risk population. It’s not available for the worried well,” she said. “It’s a shame that we don’t have the supply of the flu vaccine to vaccinate everybody.”
Still, health officials agree that immunizing against flu could help ease anthrax fears.
“If you could immunize people for the flu, you would be running a lower risk for worrying about anthrax, ” said Erika Schwartz, an internist and trauma specialist in private practice in New York.
Schwartz said it is critical for a doctor to get a good patient history to make a proper diagnosis, finding out where their patient works and if they have come in contact with someone who had the flu or if they could have been exposed to anthrax.
Two postal workers died from inhalation anthrax last week after they were exposed to the bacterium in the Brentwood mail processing facility in Washington where they worked.
One of those workers, Joseph P. Curseen, went to Southern Maryland Medical Center last Sunday and was sent home by doctors who diagnosed his symptoms as the flu. Curseen died Monday of anthrax.
Duke agreed with Schwartz that doctors should be sure to get their patient’s history. She said that, because symptoms of inhalation anthrax look like the flu, it would be easy for patients and doctors to get worried needlessly. But Duke also said patients should not panic at the first sniffle.
“You have to have a credible threat to make you think you’ve had exposure to anthrax,” Duke said.
Schwartz said it is “a new world; we’ve got to learn the new rules.” But some old-fashioned techniques can help.
“I’ll tell you, taking a (patient) history is not a new rule,” Schwartz said. “You have ask and be proactive as a patient and you have to be proactive as a doctor.”