More U.S. Swine Flu Cases Confirmed

Like the swine flu virus, news about the outbreak is spreading. For the latest information, Steve Inskeep talks with Dr. Anne Schuchat, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She's head of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

On this morning when 300 schools are closed across the country, we've called one of the government's leading voices on swine flu. Dr. Anne Schuchat is a deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She's also head of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, which means, of course, she's in the middle of the tracking of the H1N1 virus. And she joins us.

Good morning.

Dr. ANNE SCHUCHAT (Deputy Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): Good morning. How are you?

INSKEEP: I'm doing fine. Thank you. Healthy at the moment and hopefully staying that way, and I hope you are as well.

Dr. SCHUCHAT: Terrific.

INSKEEP: I want to ask you about a statement that Vice President Biden made yesterday on television. Now, he backtracked a little bit, but I just want to ask about the statement on its face, about the facts of it. He said yesterday that wouldn't put his family on an airplane right now. And he said, quote, "When one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft." Is that true?

Dr. SCHUCHAT: You know, we think that respiratory infections can spread in close circumstances, and that's one of the reasons we recommend that people who are sick with fever and respiratory illness stay off of planes. But we think it is safe to travel. And I took an airplane back home just last night.

INSKEEP: Although, that gets to the real question - advising people who are sick to stay home is pretty obvious. And, of course, that's what you're doing. Avoid confined spaces. But what people are wondering is if they're not sick if they should be avoiding subways, if they should be avoiding restaurants, crowded areas, airplanes, that seems to be in some ways germ factories.

Dr. SCHUCHAT: No, absolutely not. We don't think that's appropriate step to take right now. It's really important that we strike a balance and that we don't do more harm with interventions than this virus is causing.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

Dr. SCHUCHAT: Well, you know, if we shut down society at this point we're going to have a lot of negative consequences. We're at early days in understanding this virus. And we have seen much illness in schools and such in the U.S., but so far most of the illness has been relatively mild. We're trying to strike a balance and be prudent but not have people panic.

INSKEEP: Now, Dr. Schuchat, we keep hearing about more cases of infection in the United States but not more deaths in the United States. What do you make of that?

Dr. SCHUCHAT: You know, that's right. As we look for cases we're finding more. And still most of what we're finding is relatively mild. It looks a lot like seasonal influenza. And we do expect there may be a spectrum. We're concerned about the possibility of severe cases, and we know there are likely to be some. But the majority of what we have seen so far has been mild, self-limited illness.

INSKEEP: Does your evidence suggest that this disease is hard to get? We've had evidence of families with clusters of the disease or children in school together, but there aren't a lot of cases of someone with casual contact where it's not clear where they got it from.

Dr. SCHUCHAT: You know, we think this virus, from what we know today, is pretty easily transmitted with coughs or sneezes. Just like the seasonal flu. We have much information about schools now, as well as some families, where many others have gotten relatively mild respiratory symptoms.

It's important for people to know there are things you can do to reduce that risk - washing your hands, covering your cough, and taking those sorts of steps. But it is early days. And with influenza we always want to be humble and know that things can change and it can be unpredictable.

INSKEEP: Do you have a sense of the risk of fatality here?

Dr. SCHUCHAT: Not yet. We would love to have that information because it would help in our planning. We have differences of information coming from the early reports from Mexico compared with what we've seen here in the United States.

INSKEEP: Much higher fatality rate in Mexico.

Dr. SCHUCHAT: Well, you know, we're trying to compare apples to apples, rather than apples and oranges, because information was gathered in different ways in the two settings. And fortunately I do think in the next several days better information will be forthcoming.

INSKEEP: The risk here, I suppose, is not of a really high death rate but of a really high infection rate, and you could end up with a fair number of deaths.

Dr. SCHUCHAT: You know, influenza usually has a fairly high attack rate on infection rate, and so it's that severity that we're focusing on. It does look so far like this respiratory virus is pretty easily transmitted, but we don't know yet if it has a pattern of severity that's worse than the seasonal influenza.

Of course, seasonal influenza does cause about 36,000 deaths every year in the United States. But it causes millions and millions of infections that are milder than that.

INSKEEP: Dr. Schuchat, thanks very much.

Dr. SCHUCHAT: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Dr. Anne Schuchat is deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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