Sunday, April 26, 2009

U.S. declares health emergency due to flu outbreak

Mexican swine flu deaths spark worldwide action, London Guardian, April 26, 2009
U.S. Declares Public Health Emergency Over Swine Flu

New York Times
Published: April 26, 2009

American health officials on Sunday declared a public health emergency over increasing cases of swine flu, saying that they had confirmed 20 cases of the disease in the United States and expected to see more as investigators fan out to track down the path of the outbreak.

Although officials said most of the cases have been mild and urged Americans not to panic, the emergency declaration frees government resources to be used toward diagnosing or preventing additional cases, and releases money for more antiviral drugs.

“We are seeing more cases of swine flu,” said Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control, in a news conference in Washington. “We expect to see more cases of swine flu. As we continue to look for cases, I expect we’re going to find them.” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, speaking at the same news conference called the emergency declaration “standard operating procedure,” and said it should be considered a “declaration of emergency preparedness.”

“Really that’s what we’re doing right now,” she said. “We’re preparing in an environment where we really don’t know ultimately what the size of seriousness of this outbreak is going to be.”

Officials said they had confirmed eight cases in New York, seven in California, two in Kansas, two in Texas and one in Ohio, and that the cases looked to be similar to the deadly strain of swine flu that has killed more than 80 people in Mexico and infected 1,300 more.

So far, there have been no deaths from swine flu in the United States, and only one of the people who tested positive for the disease has been hospitalized, officials said.

Still, officials said they expect more severe cases.

Other governments around the world stepped up their response to the incipient outbreak, racing to contain the infection amid reports of potential new cases from New Zealand to Hong Kong to Spain, raising concerns about the potential for a global pandemic.

Canada also confirmed four cases of the flu. Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief public health officer, said on Sunday that four students who attend the same school in that province had what he describes as “very mild” cases of the flu, according to The Associated Press.

The United States said it would use “passive surveillance” in screening travelers from Mexico who would enter the country, isolating them only if they were ill. But other governments issued travel advisories urging people not to visit Mexico, the apparent origin of the outbreak, where 81 people have died and some 1,300 have been infected. China, Russia and others set up quarantines for anyone possibly infected. Some countries banned pork imports from Mexico, even though there is no link between food products and the flu, and others were screening air travelers for signs of the disease.

The World Health Organization reiterated that it considered the outbreak “a public health emergency of international concern” but said it would put off until Tuesday a decision on whether to raise the pandemic alert level.

Raising it to level 4 “would be a very serious signal that countries ought to be dusting off pandemic plans,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, deputy director general of the W.H.O. The W.H.O. is historically reluctant to declare pandemics in sensitive member countries..
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