World Races to Contain Swine Flu Outbreak
Governments are racing to find and contain pockets of swine flu around the globe, seeking to stem both the threat of a pandemic and public panic.
"We're preparing in an environment where we really don't know ultimately what the size or seriousness of this outbreak is going to be," U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday.
In Mexico, the outbreak's epicenter, soldiers handed out 6 million face masks to help stop the spread of the novel virus that is suspected in up to 103 deaths. Most other countries are reporting only mild cases so far, with most of the sick already recovering. Cases have been confirmed in Canada — six — and the U.S. — 20 — and other countries from Spain to New Zealand were investigating whether other people with flulike symptoms really have this new swine flu or something else.
There is not a global pandemic yet, but waiting until scientists know if the new virus is going to spread rapidly and easily would be too late.
The U.S. declared the health emergency amid confusion about whether new numbers really mean ongoing infections — or just that health officials had missed something simmering for weeks or months. But the move allows the government to ship roughly 12 million doses of flu-fighting medications from a federal stockpile to states in case they eventually need them.
President Barack Obama is set to address the health crisis Monday in remarks to a meeting of the nation's top scientists. His administration sought on Sunday to strike a balance, informing Americans without panicking them.
"We do think this will continue to spread but we are taking aggressive actions to minimize the impact on people's health," said Dr. Richard Besser, acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The World Bank said it would send Mexico $25 million in loans for immediate aid and $180 million in long-term assistance to address the outbreak, plus advice on how other nations have dealt with similar crises. Mexico officials say the flu strain may have sickened 1,614 people since April 13 but laboratory testing to confirm that and how many truly died from it — at least 22 so far out of the 103 suspected deaths — is taking time.
Q. What is swine flu?
A. Swine flu is a respiratory illness in pigs caused by a virus. The swine flu virus routinely causes outbreaks in pigs but doesn't usually kill many of them.
Q. Can people get swine flu?
A. Swine flu viruses don't usually infect humans. There have been occasional cases, usually among people who've had direct contact with infected pigs, such as farm workers. "We've seen swine influenza in humans over the past several years, and in most cases, it's come from direct pig contact. This seems to be different," said Dr. Arnold Monto, a flu expert with the University of Michigan.
Q. Can it spread among humans?
A. There have been cases of the virus spreading from human to human, probably in the same way as seasonal flu, through coughing and sneezing by infected people.
Q. What are the symptoms of swine flu?
A. The symptoms are similar to those of regular flu — fever, cough, fatigue, lack of appetite.
Q. Is the same swine flu virus making people sick in Mexico and the U.S.?
A. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the Mexican virus samples match the U.S. virus. The virus is a mix of human virus, bird virus from North America and pig viruses from North America, Europe and Asia.
Q. Are there drugs to treat swine flu in humans?
A. There are four different drugs approved in the U.S. to treat the flu, but the new virus has shown resistance to the two oldest. The CDC recommends the use of the flu drugs Tamiflu and Relenza.
Q. Does a regular flu shot protect against swine flu?
A. The seasonal flu vaccine used in the U.S. this year won't likely provide protection against the latest swine flu virus. There is a swine flu vaccine for pigs but not for humans.
Q. Should residents of California or Texas do anything special?
A. The CDC recommends routine precautions to prevent the spread of infectious diseases: wash your hands often, cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, avoid close contact with sick people. If you are sick, stay at home and limit contact with others.
Q. What about traveling to Mexico?
A. The CDC has not warned Americans against traveling to Mexico but advises that they be aware of the illnesses there and take precautions to protect against infections, like washing their hands.