Q&A with Anthony Otuka, 

Chief of epidemiology at Shelby County Health Department

More than 200,000 Americans are hospitalized each year because of complications with influenza, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Through the national flu network, a team of doctors across the country voluntarily sends flu stats to CDC to determine the prevalence of the virus and what strains are affecting different areas of the nation. The information also helps the CDC determin the effectiveness of flu vaccines.

Locally, however, the Shelby County Health Department is having a hard time attracting doctors to volunteer for the project. Anthony Otuka, chief of epidemiology at the Health Department, needs 10 doctors to volunteer, but so far only four have signed up. — by Bianca Phillips

Flyer: What is the flu network project?

Otuka: The project has about 2,400 providers in 50 states who report on cases of influenza every week.

In addition to reporting cases, the providers in the network send at least one specimen [swabbed] from a [flu] patient to the CDC each month. That tells us the strain of the virus.

What does the project require of doctors?

If a patient has a fever of 100 degrees or above and that patient also has a cough and sore throat, you simply make a mark on the patient's chart. At the end of the week, you count the people you have flagged as having an influenza-like illness and send that information in.

You're only required to collect a specimen from one of those patients. But the rest will be counted as having an influenza-like illness.

Why do we need 10 doctors to participate?

When you have only four doctors, you're not getting a full picture. Ideally, we'd have doctors who are not only geographically spread across the county, but also we'd have doctors across several specialties.

If all your doctors are pediatricians, you're only going to have a picture of what's happening with children. So you need pediatricians, family practitioners, gynecologists, orthopedic surgeons, anybody who sees patients. But since it's been difficult for us to attract physicians, I'll take whatever I can get.

Why aren't doctors volunteering?

Doctors are very busy. When you ask a doctor to take part in this and you tell them they'll have to report every week, wheels start turning in their head, and they're thinking, I don't have the time.

How much time does it take?

Most doctors who take part in the network put 30 minutes or less into this every week. It might take only five minutes a day. We want doctors to know that this process is not as time-consuming as they might think.

Have we had an easier time attracting doctors in the past?

It's always a problem. I've put in countless hours on this. I've visited doctors. I've begged. I don't know what else to do.

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