Swine Flu Spreads To Canada, 5 U.S. States

The spread of swine flu reaches Canada, along with five American states and Mexico. The only confirmed deaths so far are in Mexico, but U.S. officials declared a "public health emergency" to deal with the outbreak. NPR's Jon Hamilton talks to host Jacki Lyden about the latest developments.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

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

Federal officials say the public should brace for more bad news about swine flu in the coming days. At a White House briefing today, Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said experts are still finding new cases in the U.S. and Mexico.

Dr. RICHARD BESSER (Acting Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): We do think that this will continue to spread, but we are taking aggressive actions to minimize the impact on people's health.

LYDEN: So far, there are 20 confirmed cases in the U.S., spread across five states: California, Texas, Kansas, Ohio and New York. In Mexico, there are 20 confirmed deaths from swine flu, and authorities are investigating at least 60 others. And six cases were confirmed today in Canada.

Joining us now to talk about these outbreaks is NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton.

Hi, Jon.

JON HAMILTON: Hi.

LYDEN: The American government seems to be trying really hard to make sure that people are getting a consistent message.

HAMILTON: Yes. Certainly, during the White House briefing today, they were really trying hard to be on message, to be consistent. And one of the things they did was they announced that Janet Napolitano, who is in charge of Homeland Security, is also going to be in charge of dealing with this outbreak. So, everybody else is going to be reporting to her.

And, you know, she sort of laid things out. You had Richard Besser from the CDC who laid things out. And when they had a press conference later at the CDC, you were hearing almost exactly the same phrases. I think a lot of this probably goes back a few years to anthrax when there was a terrible problem of different information coming out of different agencies, and they're trying really hard not to repeat that.

LYDEN: It is also apparent, Jon, isn't it, that there's still so much they don't know. Why is that?

HAMILTON: Well, there are a lot of holes in the data. I mean, for instance, we know that there are 20 people who died in Mexico. They were all confirmed to have had the virus in their bodies. But what you don't know is how many people there actually got sick, right? And you know about - something about how many people showed in the hospital. But until you know - what if there were thousands of people who got sick and only 20 died? Well, then it wouldn't be as serious as if, you know, there had only been 100, and 20 died.

LYDEN: Right. Even so, the federal government announced a public health emergency today, which does sound very grave.

HAMILTON: It sounds scary, there's no question about that. And, in fact, at the White House press conference today, Janet Napolitano of Homeland Security went through great pains to explain why it's really not as scary as it sounds. Here's what she said.

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (United States Department of Homeland Security): It's similar to what we do, for example, when a hurricane may be approaching a site. Really, that's what we're doing right now, the government. We're leaning forward, we're preparing in an environment where we really don't know ultimately what the size or seriousness of this outbreak is going to be.

LYDEN: So, that's what Napolitano had to say. What about another question that came up at that briefing? Why are there so many deaths in Mexico, yet none here in the U.S.? Do we know?

HAMILTON: Well, this is a question that everybody is asking today. Because if there were some kind of a pattern, then you'd be looking for some kind or there must be some difference, maybe the virus has attenuated in the U.S. There's all kinds of things you could speculate. But the fact is - and they went through great pains to say this today - was we really don't know. And part of the reason you don't know is because with only 20 cases in the U.S., that's just not enough to know whether it's a really dangerous virus or not.

LYDEN: What are people supposed to do? There was really a consistency in the message on a couple of things.

HAMILTON: Yeah, the consistent message was wash your hands; wash your hands; wash your hands. And actually, Richard Besser went on to mention a few other things that are a good idea to do. Here's what he said.

Dr. BESSER: If you're sick, it's very important that people stay at home. If your children are sick, have a fever and flu-like illness, they shouldn't go to school. And if you're ill, you shouldn't get on an airplane or another public transport to travel.

LYDEN: Kind of common sense. What about traveling to Mexico? That came up too.

HAMILTON: Well, you know, it's interesting. And this is where, I think, the government is having to do a balance between making sure people are paying attention, but not wanting to be alarmist or do things that completely shut down another country's economy, right?

So, in fact, there is no restriction on traveling to Mexico. All they're saying is people who are going there should be aware and should look for symptoms.

LYDEN: Thanks very much. NPR's science correspondent Jon Hamilton.

Thanks for coming in.

HAMILTON: You're welcome.

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Public Health Officials Brace For Swine Flu Battle

Swine Flu In The U.S.

Number of laboratory-confirmed cases of human swine flu in the U.S. as of 12:30 p.m. ET, Apr. 26.:

  • California: 7
  • Kansas: 2
  • New York City: 8
  • Ohio: 1
  • Texas: 2

Total: 20

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Governments are racing to find and contain pockets of swine flu around the globe. U.S. health officials declared a public health emergency Sunday in response to a growing outbreak of swine flu, as Canada reported its first confirmed cases.

At a White House briefing, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the declaration "sounds more severe than it really is," but said it authorizes public health officials to put an apparatus in place for additional testing, to distribute antiviral medications and to take other steps if needed.

Napolitano said roughly 12 million doses of antiviral drugs will be moved from a federal stockpile to places where states can quickly get their share if they decide they need it. Priority will be given to the five states with known cases so far: California, Texas, New York, Ohio and Kansas.

There are now 20 confirmed cases in those states. Many, but not all, of those cases involve travelers who have recently been to Mexico.

The U.S. cases have been mild so far, but "as we continue to look for cases, we are going to see a broader spectrum of disease," said Dr. Richard Besser, acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

President Barack Obama is set to address the health crisis Monday in remarks to a meeting of the nation's top scientists. His administration sought on Sunday to strike a balance, informing Americans without panicking them.

In Canada, Nova Scotia's chief public health officer, Dr. Robert Strang, said the province had confirmed four mild cases of swine flu in students under age 18.

"It was acquired in Mexico, brought home and spread," Strang said. All of the students are recovering, he said.

Mexico: More Deaths Could Be Attributed To Flu

Swine flu has killed at least 20 people in Mexico, and possibly more than 80. Most of the dead were ages 25 to 45, a worrying sign because a hallmark of past flu pandemics has been high fatalities among healthy young adults.

But Mexican President Felipe Calderon said Sunday that more than two-thirds of the roughly 1,300 people in Mexico that were believed to have swine flu have been tested and found to be free of the disease. Another 400 people are still undergoing tests.

During a meeting of health officials, Calderon said it's important to "take this seriously, but it's also very important to stay calm, cooperate with authorities and inform them of any cases that arise." He said Mexico has ample stocks of antiviral medicine.

The Mexican government has ordered precautions to prevent the spread of infection. In Mexico City, museums were closed and public events scrapped. Nightclubs and movie theaters were closed Saturday night. At least one open bar stationed medics at its doors to check clients' throats and take their temperatures. All schools in the Mexico City area will be closed until May 6. Some companies plan to have employees work from home, and churchgoers were told to stay home and follow Sunday services on television.

The World Health Organization on Saturday declared the swine flu outbreak a "public health emergency of international concern." A senior official said the agency's emergency committee will meet again on Tuesday to examine the extent to which the virus has spread and decide whether the pandemic alert level should be increased.

Several countries are investigating suspected cases. In Spain, three people have been hospitalized and placed under round-the-clock observation after they displayed flulike symptoms after a trip to Mexico. Four people are being examined in France, also after traveling to Mexico. And in New Zealand, 10 students in Auckland who recently returned from a school trip to Mexico were being treated for mild flulike symptoms that health officials said were probably caused by swine flu.

World Takes Precautions

Nations around the world are taking precautions to contain the spread of the disease. In Egypt, health authorities were examining about 350,000 pigs for swine flu symptoms. In Asia, where countries have had to deal with such other deadly viruses as H5N1 bird flu and SARS, travelers are being screened for fever and other symptoms at airports and border checkpoints.

Hong Kong and Taiwan plan to quarantine people who have fevers and are returning from flu-affected areas. Tokyo's Narita airport has installed a device to test the temperatures of passengers arriving from Mexico. A Russian health agency said any passenger from North America running a fever would be quarantined until cause of the fever is determined.

Russia has also banned the import of meat products from Mexico, California, Texas and Kansas. South Korea said it would increase the number of its influenza virus checks on pork products from Mexico and the U.S. Serbia, too, has banned all imports of pork from North America. During the briefing Sunday in Washington, Napolitano said she wanted to underscore "that you cannot get the swine flu from eating pork."

Also at that briefing, John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said that President Obama "is very concerned" about the swine flu outbreak and is "monitoring the situation very closely." And White House press secretary Robert Gibbs added that the government's response to the swine flu situation was not being hampered by the administration not yet having a secretary of Health and Human Services, a head of the CDC or a surgeon general.

The new flu strain, a mixture of various swine, bird and human viruses, poses the biggest risk of a large-scale pandemic since avian flu surfaced in 1997, killing several hundred people. A 1968 "Hong Kong" flu pandemic killed about 1 million people globally.

New flu strains can spread quickly because no one has natural immunity to them, and a vaccine takes months to develop.

Swine Flu Symptoms

Symptoms include a fever of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, body aches, coughing, a sore throat, respiratory congestion and, in some cases, vomiting and diarrhea.

The virus is usually contracted through direct contact with pigs, but Joseph Domenech, chief of animal health at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, said all indications were that the virus is being spread through human-to-human transmission.

No vaccine specifically protects against swine flu, and it is unclear how much protection current human flu vaccines might offer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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