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Privacy laws limit information about H1N1 flu cases

How about a back story on the poor souls who have died from H1N1? I would like to know if they had a flu shot or did they perhaps have an immune deficiency. I am not being nosy. Believe me, my prayers go out to their families. I only wish to know (along with every other right-minded individual) whether there's more to the story of H1N1. Why don't you do a service for the community and write the rest of the story, instead of just causing more strife for all of us?

— Brian C., Rogue River

There are several of issues at play here, Brian.

Medical privacy laws prevent hospitals from releasing the names of people who die of influenza or are hospitalized. Anyone who violates the law is subject to a fine of $50,000 out of their own pocket — not paid by their employer.

Except in rare cases where a reporter might happen to make a connection with an H1N1 victim or a family member, we have no way of knowing who those folks are, so it's impossible to ask them questions like "Did you have a flu shot?" or "Do you have an underlying medical condition?"

One example of an H1N1 story in which we did have more information was the case of Jacquelyn Cordero, 30, who was transferred in mid-October to Portland to be placed on special medical equipment after spending a week in intensive care at a Medford hospital. Her family chose to discuss the case, so we had a few more details — and, fortunately, she was upgraded last week from critical to serious condition.

But that's the rare exception. Right now, society has made a decision that protecting the privacy of individuals' medical records is important. We can't, for example, call your doctor and ask them to tell us intimate details about you without your permission, and even then, some physicians decline to discuss a patient's case on the notion that it's a private matter between the patient and the physician.

Even if we did know the names of H1N1 victims and asked them about their medical history, there's nothing that would compel them to answer.

We'll all know more about influenza as time passes and scientists gather more information. Unfortunately, that takes time — usually, more time than people want to wait.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.