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Archive for Monday, April 27, 2009

Is swine flu ‘the big one’ or an outbreak that fizzles?

April 27, 2009

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Parishioners at Metropolitan Cathedral attend a closed-door Mass on Sunday in Mexico City. Churches stood empty Sunday in Mexico City after services were canceled, and health workers screened airports and bus stations for people sickened by a new strain of swine flu that experts fear could become a global epidemic.

Parishioners at Metropolitan Cathedral attend a closed-door Mass on Sunday in Mexico City. Churches stood empty Sunday in Mexico City after services were canceled, and health workers screened airports and bus stations for people sickened by a new strain of swine flu that experts fear could become a global epidemic.







tips for containing swine flu

A swine flu outbreak appears to have killed dozens of people in Mexico and caused mild illnesses in the United States. The Atlanta-based federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York City Department of Health are recommending several steps to prevent the spread of the virus. • If you have flu symptoms, stay home from work or school to avoid spreading the disease. Do not return until two days after your symptoms are gone. • Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, and wash your hands frequently. • Go to the hospital if you have severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing, but if your symptoms are mild stay home to avoid spreading the virus to others at the hospital. • Masks may be recommended for health care workers, family members and others who come in close contact with swine flu patients, but there is no need for the general public to wear masks. • It is safe to eat properly handled pork. Cook it to at least 160 degrees.

— As reports of a unique form of swine flu erupt around the world, the inevitable question arises: Is this the big one?

Is this the next big global flu epidemic that public health experts have long anticipated and worried about? Is this the novel virus that will kill millions around the world, as pandemics did in 1918, 1957 and 1968?

The short answer is it’s too soon to tell.

“What makes this so difficult is we may be somewhere between an important but yet still uneventful public health occurrence here — with something that could literally die out over the next couple of weeks and never show up again — or this could be the opening act of a full-fledged influenza pandemic,” said Michael Osterholm, a prominent expert on global flu outbreaks with the University of Minnesota.

“We have no clue right now where we are between those two extremes. That’s the problem,” he said.

Health officials want to take every step to prevent an outbreak from spiraling into mass casualties. Predicting influenza is a dicey endeavor, with the U.S. government famously guessing wrong in 1976 about a swine flu pandemic that never materialized.

“The first lesson is anyone who tries to predict influenza often goes down in flames,” said Dr. Richard Wenzel, the immediate past president of the International Society for Infectious Diseases.

But health officials are being asked to make such predictions, as panic began to set in over the weekend.

The epicenter was Mexico, where the virus is blamed for 86 deaths and an estimated 1,400 cases in the country since April 13. Schools were closed, church services canceled and Mexican President Felipe Calderon assumed new powers to isolate people infected with the swine flu virus.

International concern magnified as health officials across the world on Sunday said they were investigating suspected cases in people who traveled to Mexico and come back with flu-like illnesses. Among the nations reporting confirmed cases or investigations were Canada, France, Israel and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, in the United States, there were no deaths and all patients had either recovered or were recovering. But the confirmed cases around the nation rose from eight on Saturday morning to 20 by Sunday afternoon, including eight high school kids in New York City — a national media center.

The concern level rose even more when federal officials on Sunday declared a public health emergency — a procedural step, they said, to mobilize antiviral medicine and other resources and be ready if the U.S. situation gets worse.

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