Health Officials: Flu Virus 'Unpredictable'

At least 20 people have died in Mexico from a new strain of swine flu. World health leaders expressed concern Saturday as a mild version of the virus was identified in three American cities.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

In Mexico, at least 20 people are dead, and many more are stricken as an unusual type of flu spreads through the capital. A mild form of the virus has shown up in several U.S. cities. And today, a top world health official said it might, quote, "have pandemic potential."

In a moment, we'll talk to Laurie Garrett, director of the Global Health Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. First, though, to NPR's Joanne Silberner for the latest development.

JOANNE SILBERNER: No one is calling this new flu a pandemic yet, but the world's public health authorities are watching closely. What's known so far, a type of flu virus hit Mexico, apparently hard, beginning last month. The U.S. has been hit a little.

In Mexico, public health officials report 20 confirmed deaths and are investigating 48 others, plus hundreds of cases of pneumonia. In the U.S., the new flu virus has been identified in eight people in California and Texas. Today, New York City reported eight probable cases. Others are under investigation. The U.S. cases have been mild.

Anne Schuchat is with the flu program at the CDC.

Dr. ANNE SCHUCHAT (Director, National Immunizations Program, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): We're at a stage here where we have some really important questions to figure out on how transmissible is this virus, how severe is it, what ways is it being transmitted…

SILBERNER: How to reduce the transmission, how best to treat the illness. So far, at least, the new virus is sensitive to two antiviral drugs: Tamiflu and Relenza.

The new flu does not appear to have gone worldwide, Margaret Chan said today. She's director of the World Health Organization.

Dr. MARGARET CHAN (Director-General, World Health Organization): We do not, at present, have indications of similar outbreaks in other parts of the world.

SILBERNER: The CDC has issued a travel warning from Mexico, not that people shouldn't go, but that they should be aware of the situation. The CDC is isolating virus samples for use in a vaccine, but it'll be months before a vaccine could be ready. And local and national health officials are on high alert for suspicious cases of late season flu. Another area of investigation is why the Mexican cases are more severe.

Again, the CDC's Anne Schuchat.

Dr. SCHUCHAT: It may look different because we don't have good enough information. It may look different because the virus is different. It may look different because there's some other co-factor or circumstance or environmental issue that's driving a more severe circumstance in one place than elsewhere.

SILBERNER: Both Schuchat and Margaret Chan emphasized in their press briefings today that influenza viruses are notoriously unpredictable and full of surprises.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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