The new H1N1 swine flu is causing widespread illness across the nation, federal health officials said Friday.
Doctor visits, hospitalization and deaths from flu are all abnormally high — and for the first time this fall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared an official epidemic of flu deaths.
Deaths among children and teenagers now number 86, about twice as many pediatric deaths as the CDC normally counts for an entire flu season. Half of those deaths were among teenagers, many of whom were perfectly healthy before the flu struck them down.
Testing Pigs In Minnesota
In a potentially troubling development, pigs in Minnesota may have tested positive for the H1N1 virus, representing the first potential U.S. cases in swine, Agriculture Department officials said.
The officials cautioned that further tests are needed to confirm that the pigs have been infected with H1N1. The pigs did not exhibit signs of sickness and may have been infected by a group of children with the virus, they said.
Samples from the pigs that may have tested positive were collected at the Minnesota State Fair between Aug. 26 and Sept. 1. USDA officials did not say how many pigs may have tested positive.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement that testing was under way and results should be available in a matter of days. He said the USDA was working with the CDC and that the USDA's National Veterinary Services Laboratories would be conducting tests to confirm the results.
Vilsack asked for caution from consumers and said people should not react to the news by avoiding pork products.
"I want to remind people that people cannot get this flu from eating pork or pork products," he said.
Vilsack's caution aside, the news is clearly unwelcome for the pork industry. Producers had been struggling before the H1N1 virus gained public attention. Advocates have worked assiduously to distance the pork industry from the H1N1 virus, but Friday's news once again ties the two.
The potentially positive test was discovered by a CDC research project conducted by the University of Iowa and University of Minnesota, which is documenting instances of influenza viruses where humans and pigs regularly interact, such as state fairs.
In this case, officials said, a group of children staying at dormitory near the Minnesota State Fair contracted the H1N1 virus at the same time that samples were taken from the pigs. However, officials said no direct link between the pigs and the outbreak among the children has been made.
USDA officials said that information from late August indicated that the children were not sickened by the pigs.
Flu Hitting Hard, Vaccine Production Lagging
While many think of the current flu pandemic as a fizzle, federal experts reiterated Friday that the nation is in the middle of a flu phenomenon.
Forty-one states are having widespread outbreaks, up from 37 states a week ago. More than 6 percent of all doctor visits are for flu-like illness. That's very high for anytime in a flu season, but especially in October, so early in the season.
Meanwhile, vaccine for the H1N1 swine flu virus is becoming available more slowly than expected.
Government officials had expected that vaccine manufacturers would be able to supply 40 million doses by the end of October. It's now looking more like 28 or 30 million doses, Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC said at a news conference, with more to come in November and beyond.
More than 11 million doses of vaccine are ready for use, and 8 million vaccines --- about half of which can be injected, another half of which can be inhaled — have been shipped to states.
Schuchat said the virus that makes the vaccine is growing slowly. Each batch must be tested for safety and potency.
Clinical tests of the vaccine in pregnant women are ongoing. But because the flu has been hitting pregnant women especially hard — and because of the seasonal flu vaccine's safety — Schuchat encouraged them to get the new vaccine.
From NPR's Richard Knox and Joanne Silberner and The Associated Press