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U.S., Mexico Move Quickly To Control Swine Flu Outbreak

April 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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As the swine flu death toll rose in Mexico on Monday and dozens more cases were reported in the United States, officials moved swiftly to contain the outbreak.
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JIM LEHRER: Fears of a growing swine flu outbreak spread worldwide today. In Mexico, officials reported the death count reached 149, with more than 1,600 cases. At least 40 cases were confirmed in the United States.

NewsHour health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser has our lead story report.

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour correspondent: The U.S. government warned Americans today to avoid non-essential travel to Mexico as the swine flu spread in America’s southern neighbor. Health officials said they could not yet gauge the scope of the outbreak there.

Normally bustling Mexico City, which was a ghost town over the weekend, haltingly returned to work today, just in time for a strong earthquake to rock the already-shaken capital.

The magnitude 5.6 temblor was centered more than 100 miles southwest of Mexico City, but tall buildings swayed and office workers flowed into the streets.

Many of them wore surgical masks, a measure aimed at stemming the spread of the virus in the crowded capital of nearly 20 million people.

The Mexican government took several steps aimed at curtailing transmission. Schools were ordered closed throughout the country until May 6th. Classes in Mexico City in five states were already suspended.

Churches in the heavily Catholic nation were closed again today. Movie theaters, bars, and clubs were also shuttered. The Mexican government may go further still and shut down the entire national government to slow the viral creep.

Mexico City’s mayor was focused on treating the sick.

MAYOR MARCELO EBRARD, Mexico City (through translator): In the first place, we have to guarantee, along with the federal health secretariat, the distribution of medicine to every person whom doctors expect could have the influenza virus. That is the first strategic goal for today.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ten Mexican states, including the capital, have reported swine flu cases.

In the United States, state health officials in New York, California, Kansas, Ohio, and Texas have all reported confirmed swine flu cases, and Michigan has reported one probable case.

This morning, President Obama offered reassurance that his administration was closely monitoring the swine flu cases.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is obviously a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert, but it’s not a cause for alarm.

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.

I’m getting regular updates on the situation from the responsible agencies and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the Centers for Disease Control will be offering regular updates to the American people.

CDC expects more cases

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Officials at the Centers for Disease Control said today they expect the number of swine flu cases to grow as more test results are evaluated in their labs.

Dr. Richard Besser is the acting director of the CDC.

DR. RICHARD BESSER, acting director, Centers for Disease Control: We are seeing significant rates of respiratory infections among contacts. This virus is acting like a flu virus, and flu viruses spread from person to person.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The swine flu is a respiratory disease in pigs caused by the Type A influenza virus that normally doesn't affect humans.

But the virus has mutated into a new strain, a type that is known as the H1N1 flu virus. Symptoms are similar to that of the seasonal flu: fever, cough, sore throat, and nausea.

Besser said roughly 12 million doses of antiretrovirals are being moved from a federal stockpile and will to be available to states should they need it.

He also had suggestions for keeping the disease from spreading.

DR. RICHARD BESSER: Those are the typical guidelines for respiratory infections, frequent hand-washing. If you don't have access to soap and water, use an alcohol gel. Covering your cough or your sneeze, that's very important. And if you're sick, if you have a fever and you're sick, and your children are sick, don't go to work and don't go to school.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So far, this high school in Queens, New York, has the highest concentration. More than two dozen students have tested positive for the disease.

School officials at St. Francis Preparatory announced that it would stay closed until at least Wednesday while workers sanitized the facility.

BROTHER LEONARD CONWAY, St. Francis Preparatory School: So to be on the safe side, not to have students in the building, not to have them in close contact with each other, we decided to close Monday and Tuesday.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The virus was apparently brought back by students returning from a spring trip to Cancun, Mexico, two weeks ago. City officials say the strain is the same as the one that has killed at least 100 people in Mexico.

Today, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the swine flu cases in the city appear to be isolated to the school and related to the students who traveled to Mexico.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, mayor, New York City: Nearly all of the St. Francis students with confirmed swine flu, I'm happy to say, are improving, and none of them, as far as we know, are getting worse.

And the second really important thing is that, after contacting every intensive care unit in New York City each of the past three days, we don't have a single person with severe illness and even possible or suspected flu.

That indicates that so far we are not seeing a situation comparable to that being reported in Mexico.

World health officials on alert

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In California, state health officials said the cases appear to be unrelated and increasing.

DR. MARK HORTON, California Department of Public Health: And we are following, my information is, about a dozen additional probable cases here in California. The ones here in California have not had connectivity with travel to or relatives in Mexico.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Several schools in California, Texas, Ohio, and South Carolina also closed after students were found or suspected to have the swine flu.

Meanwhile, public health officials across the country are on alert, especially in states like Colorado, with a large Mexican population. And while the state hasn't seen any cases of swine flu yet, medical personnel here at this nonprofit clinic that treats Denver's large Latino population expect cases to develop soon.

Beyond Mexico and the U.S., there were growing numbers of cases reported internationally. Canadian health officials reported at least half a dozen confirmed cases of the virus, some of them students at a private school in rural Nova Scotia. All had traveled to Mexico.

Today, Spain reported its first confirmed case: a student hospitalized in Valencia. And the European Union's health commissioner urged E.U. citizens to avoid travel to those countries affected by swine flu.

Cases have also turned up as far afield as Israel and New Zealand. Russia, Hong Kong and Taiwan said visitors returning from flu-affected areas with fevers would be quarantined, while countries from New Zealand to Israel quickly instituted new security measures at airports and put sick travelers under observation.

And several countries, including China and Russia, have issued a ban on pork products from the United States and Mexico, while U.S. government officials insist that American pork is safe for human consumption.

Travelers fear risk of infection

JIM LEHRER: The sudden eruption of flu sent ripples of health fears and economic damage across Mexico. And Saul Gonzalez of KCET-Los Angeles reports from the border town of Tijuana, Mexico.

SAUL GONZALEZ, NewsHour correspondent: More than 1,400 miles away from the swine flu outbreak in Mexico City, people are concerned. At Tijuana's international airport, travelers are getting health screenings.

And even this far away from the outbreak's epicenter, both airport employees and passengers wear masks.

Uralia Martinez was returning home to Mexico City to see her two children. She was too nervous to remove her mask, even to be interviewed.

URALIA MARTINEZ (through translator): I'm wearing this as a precaution, because you have to take precautions. The truth is, it's very dangerous, and I think it will become more dangerous with each passing day.

SAUL GONZALEZ: As an airport travel agent at one of Mexico's busiest transportation hubs, Varia Solorio fears she's more at risk of infection.

VARIA SOLORIO, travel agent (through translator): A lot of people come from many different places. They pass through here. They come from Mexico City or they're going to Mexico City.

Concerns over Mexico's economy

SAUL GONZALEZ: Many in Mexico also fear that what started as a public health care crisis could become an economic one, as well, as fears of swine flu infection scare foreign visitors away.

On Tijuana's revolution avenue, in the heart of the city's tourism zone, merchants are already reeling from a sharp drop in tourists because of the country's drug violence. Swine flu worries, they say, could kill what's left of their business.

For merchant Antonio Segundo Hernandez, foreign visitors are the lifeblood of his sales.

ANTONIO SEGUNDO HERNANDEZ (through translator): The truth is that we live off tourism; that's how we eat here. So, sure, we are fearful because the people don't come to buy, the tourists don't spend their money.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Street vendor Ignacio Abalos Garcia's concerns go beyond a potential drop in sales. Garcia worries that the Mexican government's response to the swine flu crisis won't be adequate.

IGNACIO ABALOS GARCIA: Sometimes they say they're going to get some medicine, but they won't do it. So I don't trust the government. I mean, it's sad to say that, because I'm a Mexican, you know? But sometimes they don't have -- the promises, they don't do it.

SAUL GONZALEZ: You don't think they may be able to respond effectively to...

IGNACIO ABALOS GARCIA: I don't think so.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Masks are being worn by employees at many Tijuana pharmacies, which are known to many Americans for their inexpensive drugs.

San Diego resident Shelley Somerset, who has no health insurance, crosses over to Tijuana regularly to buy her pharmaceuticals.

SHELLEY SOMERSET: I'm going to continue on with my everyday situation. I mean, it's not going to stop me from going into Mexico, because it's not isolated in Mexico. It's spreading. And hopefully they'll find a vaccine and everything will be OK, but I don't think there's any reason to panic right now.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Enrico Morones crosses the border regularly for work. He says, when it comes to public health, the boundary between the United States and Mexico is irrelevant.

ENRICO MORONES: Health, human rights, all these issues have no borders.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Health officials so far have no plans to close the border here or elsewhere.