Global Health

CDC On Frontline Of Containing Swine Flu

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There have been confirmed cases of swine flu in five states: California, Texas, Kansas, New York and Ohio. Dr. Joe Brese is chief of epidemiology and prevention in the Influenza branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He talks with Renee Montagne about how health officials are trying to keep the disease from spreading.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Health officials around the country and around the world are taking action against the spread of swine flu. As of this morning, there are confirmed cases in five U.S. states - Mexico, Canada and Spain also have confirmed cases and there are suspected cases in other countries.

One of the agencies at the forefront of the U.S. government's response to swine flu is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Joe Brese is chief of epidemiology and prevention in the influenza branch, and he joins us now live from Atlanta. Good morning.

Dr. JOE BRESE (Chief, Epidemiology and Prevention, Influenza Branch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with a brier explainer. What is swine flu and why is it so dangerous?

Dr. BRESE: Well, swine flu - pigs can get flu just like humans can get flu. The difference is pigs get influenza with influenza viruses that are adapted to pigs. They're called swine influenza viruses. Occasionally, those swine influenza viruses can infect a human, and we see that every once in a while. We see about 15 cases of that since about 2005.

The difference is, usually what happens is, those pigs that have viruses that infect humans, the humans will get sick, they'll get well, they don't spread it past themselves or maybe past their family members. This is unusual because this is a new swine influenza virus that we haven't seen before, and it's clearly shown the ability to spread between people. And both of these things make it concerning to CDC and to other public health officials.

MONTAGNE: And the people who have been getting sick or, in fact, the people who are dying - have been dying in Mexico - are not babies and old people, they're reasonably healthy youngish people. Is that a special problem?

Dr. BRESE: It is a concern to us, and I think what we have to be cognizant of is that we're pretty early in the outbreak investigation. We're early in learning about what this virus can do. We are concerned about the reports in Mexico that young healthy people are getting pneumonia, and either severe pneumonia, and maybe dying.

We haven't seen that in the United States. The cases we've seen here and the cases that have been seen in Canada tend to be self-limited; they tend to be milder, not causing hospitalization. We haven't seen any deaths outside of Mexico. So, I think we have a lot to learn about the virus and whether what the Mexicans are seeing is based on the fact that they may be looking at most severe cases or maybe they have mild cases as well. I think we just don't know yet.

I think determining how severe this virus can be in human populations is going to be one of the most important early parts of the work that we do.

MONTAGNE: Just briefly, just basics: what are the symptoms, how is it treated and is there any way to avoid it?

Dr. BRESE: Sure. They symptoms of swine influenza in humans are just like the symptoms of human influenza in humans. You get headache, you get fever, you get runny nose, you get cough, sometimes some muscle aches, just like human influenza. In fact, if you're infected with swine influenza, it's a bit difficult to tell that it's swine influenza and not human influenza or another respiratory virus.

You get it, we think, by being exposed to another person shedding swine influenza virus. One of the important parts in the early investigation are the cases have not been exposed to pigs, which is unusual for cases with swine influenza.

And so we think that the best way to do is, if you have symptoms that you think might be swine influenza - if you have a fever, you have body aches or muscle aches or runny nose - and you live in an area where other swine influenza cases may concern, then call your doctor and ask them.

MONTAGNE: Now, we just have a few seconds left, but let me just ask you - U.S. health officials have declared a public health emergency. What other actions are being taken by public health agencies?

Dr. BRESE: A lot of actions are being taken now. One of the things CDC's doing is doing investigations of the cases. So, we can learn about them, so we can help prevent new cases and prevent the spread. One of the things we've been doing to help local health departments is we've released part of our strategic national stockpile, which allows state health departments access to medications to treat swine influenza and some of the equipment needed to protect healthcare workers and other agency workers.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Brese, thank you very much for joining us.

Dr. BRESE: Sure, my please.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Joe Brese is chief of epidemiology and prevention in the influenza branch of the Centers for Disease Control, joining us from Atlanta.

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