Swine Flu Continues To Spread

Obama Asks $1.5 Billion To Fight It

April 29, 2009|By Thomas H. Maugh II | Thomas H. Maugh II,Tribune Newspapers

Outbreaks of swine flu continued to be confirmed around the world Tuesday, with new cases reported in Canada, Israel, France, New Zealand, Costa Rica and South Korea, and the White House asked Congress for an additional $1.5 billion to fight the outbreak.

President Barack Obama, in a letter to Congress, asked for the funds with "maximum flexibility to allow us to address this emerging situation."

The letter said the money could go toward stockpiling anti-viral medicine, vaccine development, disease monitoring and diagnosis, and assisting international efforts to limit its spread.

"In our opinion, this is about prudent planning moving forward," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.

Also Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she is forming a swine flu task force to coordinate U.S. efforts, and she noted that the government has made 12 million doses of anti-viral drugs available to states. She said her agency is resisting calls from Capitol Hill to screen inbound air travelers from Mexico and those crossing at border checkpoints.

"Our focus is not on closing the border or conducting exit screening," she said. "It is on mitigation."

The total number of confirmed swine flu cases in the United States had reached 67 by late Tuesday afternoon and worldwide had climbed to more than 100, not counting the still-unknown number of cases in Mexico.

At least some of the new cases appear to have risen from human-to-human transmission outside Mexico.

Such community transmission is one of the early earmarks of a pandemic. If it continues to be observed, experts said, the World Health Organization is likely to raise its alert to Phase 5, from the currently elevated Phase 4 on a scale of six. Such an increase might involve more travel restrictions and stronger efforts to control the spread of the virus.

At a Tuesday morning news conference in Geneva, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general of WHO, said a pandemic is not inevitable but if one does occur it is likely to be mild - a conclusion drawn from the lack of deaths outside Mexico.

But he cautioned that the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed millions worldwide, started out mild also. In the spring of that year, there was a mild pandemic that petered out, only to return with a vengeance in the fall.

"I think we have to be mindful and respectful of the fact that influenza moves in ways we cannot predict," he said.

It is unlikely, he said, that health authorities will be able to limit the current outbreak's spread: "At this time, containment is not a feasible option."

One ray of good news is that the outbreak might be leveling off in Mexico, where the first cases appeared. Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said Tuesday that the number of new suspected cases of swine flu in that country had declined from 141 on Saturday to 119 on Sunday and 110 Monday.

At least 152 people have died in Mexico from influenza and its complications, and more than 2,000 cases have been reported. It is not clear, however, what proportion of those deaths and cases are attributable to swine flu. So far, only 26 of the deaths have been firmly linked to the virus.

Mexican authorities ordered all restaurants in Mexico City to begin serving only take-out food in an effort to limit spread of the virus and closed down archaeological sites to limit assemblies of people. Officials had already requested that bars, movie theaters, pool halls, gyms and churches in the city close. All schools are closed until May 6.

The Mexico City Chamber of Commerce estimated the capital is losing about $60 million a day from reduced tourism, trade and other business.

At least five people were in U.S. hospitals with swine flu as the number of cases nationwide rose to 66 on Tuesday.

Most of the nation's confirmed cases were in New York City, where the health commissioner said "many hundreds" of schoolchildren were ill with what was "most likely swine flu." The city announced 45 confirmed cases, all associated with a Catholic high school.

There have been no known deaths from the virus outside of Mexico. The Los Angeles County coroner's office had said it was investigating two deaths thought to be linked to swine flu, but in a statement Tuesday it said no links could be found.

"I fully expect we will see deaths from this infection," said Dr. Richard E. Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All types of flu kill people, experts said, and there is no reason to believe this one should be different.

Also Tuesday, Cuba became the first country to suspend flights to and from Mexico, ordering a 48-hour cessation. Mexico has been a major transit point for flights to that isolated country. Cuba has not reported any cases of swine flu. Argentina later canceled all flights to and from Mexico for five days.

The Carnival and Royal Caribbean cruise lines also said their ships will not stop in Mexico until at least next week.

In Baltimore, two passengers on an AirTran Airways flight from Cancun who reported feeling ill were examined and released by medical officials at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall Airport after it was determined there was no public health threat, airline and airport officials said.

The examinations were done out of "an abundance of caution," said Christopher White, an airline spokesman.

Neither he nor Jonathan Dean, an airport spokesman, could say what symptoms the pair had. The officials handed out cards that instructed the passengers to seek medical attention if symptoms develop in coming days, and they retained contact information provided by the passengers when they booked the flight in case they need to relay any health information later.

Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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