U.s. Health Emergency Declared Over Swine Flu

Confirmed American Cases At 20, But No Fatalities Seen

April 27, 2009|By Jim Tankersley and Thomas H. Maugh II | Jim Tankersley and Thomas H. Maugh II,Tribune Newspapers

U.S. officials declared a public health emergency Sunday as eight cases of swine flu were identified in New York and one was announced Ohio, bringing the total of confirmed U.S. cases to 20.

In a briefing at the White House, the acting head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Richard Besser, warned Americans to prepare for a widespread outbreak, yet urged the public to remain calm.

Also Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the government would release a quarter of its 50 million-unit strategic reserve of antiviral medications, which combat the disease in infected patients, to states where outbreaks had occurred.

Canadian officials, meanwhile, said that four cases had been confirmed in Nova Scotia and two in British Columbia, marking the first time that this particular strain had appeared north of the U.S. border. All six Canadian cases were mild, like those in the United States.

Several other countries have reported influenza-like illnesses that they suspect might be swine flu in travelers returning from Mexico, but as of Sunday evening, none of them had been confirmed.

Nonetheless, many nations moved quickly to limit the disease's spread, in many cases appearing to be near panic. Some, such as Poland and Venezuela, warned against traveling to the United States or Mexico. Others, such as Russia and Brazil, began screening incoming international air travelers for signs of high fever.

China, Russia and Taiwan said they would quarantine returning passengers with flu symptoms.

In Mexico, Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said five more deaths had occurred from influenza in that country overnight, bringing the death total to 103. Two of the new cases were confirmed as swine flu, for a total of 22 confirmed swine flu deaths. It was not clear how many of the others were caused by the virus.

The number of suspected swine flu cases in Mexico, meanwhile, rose to more than 1,600.

Swine flu is "serious enough to be a great concern to this White House and to this government," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said on NBC's Meet the Press, adding that President Barack Obama is receiving frequent updates on the situation.

"We are taking the proper precautions to address anything that happens," Gibbs said. "It's not a time to panic." Napolitano said the emergency declaration was a routine move to ensure that the government was prepared "in an environment where we really don't know, ultimately, what the size or seriousness of this outbreak is going to be." It seemed certain, however, that the number of swine flu cases - mild or otherwise - would rise. "As we continue to look for cases, we are going to see a broader spectrum of disease," Besser said. "We're going to see more severe disease in this country."

Because of the situation in Mexico, "I do feel that we will have deaths here," Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC said at a separate news conference.

Besser said that the CDC had isolated the swine flu virus and prepared a "seed stock" for the manufacture of a vaccine but will not distribute it to pharmaceutical companies until the situation becomes more severe. Manufacture of a new vaccine would take months.

Public health officials cast the various moves as aggressive but precautionary, and they counseled calm.

The eight confirmed cases in New York involved students at St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens. City officials had said Saturday that the virus involved was probably swine flu; the assumption was confirmed by researchers at the CDC.

Some of those students had taken a spring break trip in Mexico. Flu-like symptoms have been reported in some of the parents, but causes have not been confirmed. Officials also tested children at a New York day care center where illness had been reported, but those tests came back negative.

The new case in Ohio is a 9-year-old boy in Lorain County. He has a mild case of the disease and is recovering at home.

Previously announced cases included two in Texas, two in Kansas and seven in California's Imperial and San Diego counties. All the cases were mild, and the victims have recovered.

The Nova Scotia Department of Health Promotion and Protection said Sunday that four cases had been confirmed in Windsor, in eastern Canada. The victims were students who had recently traveled to Mexico. None of them have been hospitalized.

Two teenage boys in British Columbia in western Canada were also confirmed to have swine flu. Both had mild cases.

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