Swine Flu Status Report
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Let's hear more now from the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Richard Besser, who joins us now live from Atlanta.
Welcome to the program.
Dr. RICHARD BESSER (acting director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now, we're hearing, now, that the swine flu virus seems less deadly than originally feared. Is that your assessment?
Dr. BESSER: Well, this is a rapidly changing situation, and everyday we learn more. We've learned incredible amounts since last Friday. And what we can say at this point, is that while the virus is spreading across the country, we are seeing levels of severity that are similar to what we would see during seasonal flu.
MONTAGNE: Now, that death that we just heard about - Texas officials have reported the first death yesterday of a U.S. resident with swine flu, a school teacher with other health problems. What is the significance of this?
Dr. BESSER: Well, I think what it points out is that seasonal flu, or flu in general, can be a very serious disease. And while we say this, our best judgment at this point is that this virus is no more severe than seasonal flu, each year, on average, 36,000 people in America die from seasonal flu. And so it can be a very serious disease.
MONTAGNE: So this teacher that died with the swine flu, as it's called - but in other words, you're not putting a lot of stock in this as a serious moment.
Dr. BESSER: No, I think that as we see more cases, we are going to see more hospitalizations, and unfortunately, we will see more deaths. And I'm hoping that people don't take the changing guidance on school closure as a time to put down our guard.
With a new infectious disease, you often have one chance to get out in front of it. And what we're seeing now is that the benefits of school closure are not there, but the importance of personal responsibility, the importance of shared responsibility is there. It's critically important that parents check their children every morning, and if they're sick, they keep them home, and if teachers see sick children, that they look to send them home.
MONTAGNE: Now, as you just said, the cases are still increasing in the U.S. Do you have any idea when this will peak?
Dr. BESSER: You know, that's a great question. What you tend to see with new outbreaks is really a series of smaller outbreaks. And so there are parts of the country - and you were just talking in your story about Texas - that are seeing much more disease than other parts.
What we expect is as this virus spreads around the country, we'll see increases in various pockets and then decreases. How large an outbreak it will be is something that we'll really only be able to say in retrospect.
MONTAGNE: And has the decision been made to start mass production of a vaccine against the H1N1 swine flu virus?
Dr. BESSER: No. That decision has not been made, but all of the steps necessary for development are moving forward, and that includes selecting a virus, trying to make sure you have a strain that will grow rapidly - because you need that to make vaccine - and then putting all the pieces together: meeting with manufacturers, meeting across government, so that should we decide to manufacture, we'll be ready to push the button and go.
MONTAGNE: And in past pandemics, there has been an initial wave where the death rate really wasn't so high. Then several months later, the same strain comes back and hits very hard. That happened in the very deadly 1918 pandemic. Is that a concern to you?
Dr. BESSER: That's on all of our minds. And so we're going to be looking very closely at what happens in the Southern Hemisphere. A flu is seasonal. We get our flu during the winter, as they do in the Southern Hemisphere. And so we'll be looking to see how does this virus do in the Southern Hemisphere flu season? Does it cause severe disease? Does it knock some of the other viruses that are circulating out and cause the predominance of disease? Those factors are going to weigh into decisions around vaccination.
And then there's the unknown. Flu viruses continue to mutate, and they can pick up factors that take a mild virus and make it much more severe.
MONTAGNE: Well, when would that vaccine be ready that is now being looked at?
Dr. BESSER: We would be looking to have vaccine available for the fall, and you know, how much vaccine is unknown. It depends on how the virus grows, but we would have some vaccine available for the fall, and we would be looking to give that to those individuals who are most at risk.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
Dr. BESSER: Thank you so much.
MONTAGNE: Joining us from Atlanta, Dr. Richard Besser. He's the acting director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.