US: More swine flu cases almost sure to turn up

April 28, 2009 9:03:37 AM PDT
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano predicted Tuesday that swine flu will crop up in additional states in the days ahead, although the Obama administration said it has no immediate plans for more stringent measures to prevent a wider spread of the disease from Mexico. Authorities have confirmed about 50 cases of the illness in the United States so far, and the administration has begun moving stockpiles of antiviral drugs into the affected areas.

No flu-related deaths have been reported in the U.S., while neighboring Mexico has experienced more than 150 flu-related fatalities.

As the administration marshaled its forces, a spokesman at the Office of Management and Budget said there were no current plans to seek additional funds to deal with the possibility of a wider public health threat. One senior Democrat, Rep. David Obey, has said he wants to add an undisclosed amount of flu money to President Barack Obama's request for funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Whether or not this influenza strain turns out to have pandemic potential, sooner or later, some strain will," said Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Democrats dropped efforts to include anti-pandemic funding in last winter's economic stimulus bill as they maneuvered for key votes in the Senate.

Napolitano, interviewed on NBC, said officials "anticipate confirmed cases in more states." She reiterated Obama's statement that the spread of the disease is a cause for concern but not alarm.

She offered no estimate of how widely the flu might spread, nor how many cases might eventually occur.

Authorities have reported 51 confirmed cases of swine flu in the United States: 28 at a private high school in New York City, 13 in California, six in Texas, two in Kansas, one in Ohio and one in Indiana.

Health officials in Michigan said they have one suspected case, and five are suspected in New Jersey.

Asked about stricter measures, Napolitano said, "That's something that always can be considered, but you have to look at what the costs of that are. We literally have thousands of trucks and lots of commerce that cross that border. We have food products and other things that have to go across that border.

"So there's a - that would be a very, very heavy cost for - as the epidemiologists tell us - would be marginal, if any, utility in terms of actually preventing the spread of the virus."

Some Asian countries have deployed thermal sensors at airports to screen passengers from North America for signs of fever.

At the same time, Napolitano said the administration wouldn't wait for a World Health Organization declaration of a pandemic to deliver a pandemic-like response.

Noting that the international health body has elevated its alert status to Level 4 of a 6-step process, Napolitano said: "We're prepared as if there were a pandemic. We're not waiting."

Obama on Monday responded to the first domestic emergency of his presidency by urging calm - and then dispatching officials to the cameras to again back up that message.

Richard Besser, the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said his agency was aggressively investigating, looking for evidence of the disease spreading and probing for ways to control and prevent it.

The government also issued an advisory warning travelers to cancel any nonessential visits to Mexico - and gently took issue with a European Union health official who said the same thing about travel to parts of the U.S.

At the White House, a swine flu update, delivered by White House homeland security adviser John Brennan, was added to the president's daily intelligence briefing. And on Capitol Hill, several panels scheduled emergency hearings for this week.

On Tuesday, Napolitano said that federal efforts to get antiviral medications to the states "is under way and is working."

The Food and Drug Administration, for instance, issued emergency guidance late Monday that allows certain antiviral drugs to be used in a broader range of the population in case mass dosing is needed to deal with a widespread swine flu outbreak.

The agency originally approved the use of the antiviral drug Tamiflu for the prevention and treatment of influenza in adults and children age 1 and older. Another antiviral drug, Relenza, was originally approved to treat people 7 and older and to help prevent flu in those 5 and older.

Napolitano was asked point-blank in one interview if the monitoring that the U.S. is now conducting at entry points in the country is sufficient. "We think that what we're doing now at the land ports and the airports makes sense," she replied.

Napolitano also said "absolutely yes" when asked if the Department of Health and Human Services, for which Kathleen Sebelius was still awaiting Senate confirmation, was ready to take on this kind of heavy challenge.

The Senate was debating the Kansas Democrat's nomination Tuesday, and a vote was scheduled later in the day.


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