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Obama Says Swine Flu Outbreak No Cause for 'Alarm'

Health officials checking persons entering U.S. for signs of sickness

MONDAY, April 27 (HealthDay News) -- President Barack Obama said Monday that the threat posed by the swine flu outbreak is a cause for concern but "not a cause for alarm," as the United States began monitoring its borders to contain the outbreak that has sickened 20 Americans so far.

"The Department of Health and Human Services has declared a public health emergency as a precautionary tool to ensure that we have the resources we need at our disposal to respond quickly and effectively," Obama told a gathering of scientists at the National Academy of Sciences, amid increasing worries worldwide about a possible pandemic, the Associated Press reported.

Dr. Richard Besser, acting head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said earlier Monday that Americans should be prepared for the problem to become more severe, and that it could involve "possibly deaths." He said U.S. officials were questioning border visitors about their health, looking for signs of possible infection.

The swift pace of developments in the United States -- where all 20 cases have been relatively mild and everyone has recovered -- came in response to some 1,600 swine flu infections and as many as 103 deaths in neighboring Mexico. And officials in other nations around the globe responded to the threat of a possible pandemic. The European Union advised against nonessential travel to the United States and Mexico. China, Taiwan and Russia considered quarantines, and several Asian countries scrutinized visitors arriving at their airports, the AP reported.

On Sunday, U.S. health officials declared a public health emergency in response to the swine flu outbreak, as the number of confirmed cases nationwide rose to 20.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the declaration was a precautionary measure, and did not mean that the threat posed by the outbreak was worsening. But, the move allows federal and state governments easier access to flu tests and medications, she said.

"That [a public health emergency] sounds more severe than it really is. This is standard operating procedure, and allows us to free up federal, state and local agencies and their resources for prevention and mitigation. It allows us to use medication and diagnostic tests that we might not otherwise be able to use, and it releases funds for the acquisition of additional antivirals," Napolitano said during a press conference at the White House.

Napolitano said the federal government had 50 million doses of the antiviral flu medication Tamiflu, and a quarter of those doses were being released to states, if needed, "particularly prioritizing the states where we already have confirmed incidence of the flu."

All 20 U.S. patients -- eight in New York, seven in California, two in Texas, two in Kansas and one in Ohio -- have recovered, the CDC's Besser said at the news conference.

In a separate Sunday afternoon press conference, Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC's Interim Deputy Director for Science and Public Health Program, said that it's still too early to say that the flu outbreak in the United States will be less severe than the one occurring in Mexico.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, believed to be the source of the outbreak, authorities continued to take dramatic steps over the weekend -- including suspending public gatherings -- to try to contain the swine flu outbreak that officials say has killed as many as 103 people, and sickened more than 1,600 others in that country.

On Monday, the European Union advised against nonessential travel to the United States or Mexico, CBS News reported.

But the CDC's Besser called that advisory unwarranted, saying there have only been 20 cases of swine flu diagnosed in the United States, all of them mild, with just one requiring hospitalization.

In the United States, eight more cases of swine flu, all involving school students, were confirmed Sunday by New York City health officials, while another case was reported in Ohio. Two cases were reported in Kansas on Saturday, plus another in California. That brings the national total of confirmed swine flu cases to 20.

Some of the U.S. cases involved people who had recently returned from trips to Mexico, Schuchat noted in the Sunday press conference. The two cases reported in Kansas involved a husband and wife who had recently been to that country, she said. And The New York Times reported that some of the students at St. Francis Preparatory School, in Queens, had recently come back from Mexico as well.

Also on Sunday, Canadian officials confirmed four "very mild" cases of swine flu at a school in Nova Scotia, and two other cases in British Columbia. According to the AP, a provincial health official said that the infection that sickened the students in Nova Scotia "was acquired in Mexico, brought home and spread."

The CDC's Besser said that as the number of cases of swine flu continues to grow in Mexico, his agency expects to see more cases in the United States. "As we look for cases of swine flu, we are seeing more cases of swine flu, and we would expect to see more cases of swine flu," he said.

Although all the reported cases in the United States have so far been mild, there are bound to be more severe cases, Besser said. "Given the reports out of Mexico, I would expect that over time we are going to see more severe disease in this country," he said.

Napolitano said the Department of Homeland Security has started "passive surveillance protocols to screen people coming into the country."

"All persons entering the United States from a location of human infection of swine flu will be processed by appropriate CDC protocols," she said. "Right now these are passive. They are looking for people and asking about: 'Are you sick? Have you been sick?' and the like. And if so, they can be referred over for further examination. Travelers who do present with symptoms will be isolated."

Despite the outbreak the U.S. government has not told people not to travel to Mexico or other counties where flu has been found. "To date the State Department had not issued official travel advisories, for particularly Mexico, but these situations are very fluid," Napolitano said.

There are steps people can take to help prevent catching and spreading the flu, including frequent hand-washing, Besser said. "If you are sick it is 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 are ill you shouldn't get on an airplane or another public transport. Those things are part of personal responsibility in trying to reduce the impact," he said.

The CDC's Schuchat said that U.S. health officials had numerous tools to fight the illness' spread and protect the health of Americans. The viruses found in the United States are resistant to two antiviral medications -- amantadine and rimantadine -- but are susceptible to the antivirals oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza), Schuchat said.

Schuchat said steps were already being taken to devise a vaccine against this strain of swine flu, although the process takes time. "We are taking the initial steps in terms of preparing the seed virus to hand off to the industry partners, to produce large quantities. But you know it takes months to produce a vaccine," she said.

In Mexico, the government has ordered schools closed and all public events have been suspended for the time being, including more than 500 concerts and other gatherings in the city of 20 million residents. Even churches stood empty Sunday, the AP said.

Swine flu is a respiratory disease of pigs caused by type A influenza. Swine flu does not normally infect humans. However, human infections do occur, usually after exposure to pigs. Symptoms resemble those of the regular flu, including sore throat, coughing and fever.

More information

For more on swine flu, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: April 26, 2009, White House press conference with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Richard Besser, M.D., acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; April 26 and 25, 2009, teleconferences with Anne Schuchat, M.D., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Atlanta; The New York Times; Associated Press

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