First U.S. death from swine flu reported in Texas

McClatchy NewspapersApril 28, 2009 

WASHINGTON — A 23-month-old child in Texas has died from swine flu, the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this morning in a television interview.

Dr. Richard Besser announced the details in an interview with CNN, but provided no other details.

Besser had said Tuesday that as the number of confirmed U.S. swine flu cases jumped from 45 to 64 on Tuesday, a federal health official said it's only a matter of time before the highly contagious disease claims its first American fatality.

"As we continue to investigate cases here, I expect that we will see deaths in this country," said Richard Besser, the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a press conference on Tuesday.

Besser's prediction reflects the growing threat posed by the mysterious swine flu virus and the inability of health officials both here and abroad to contain its spread.

"No single action that somebody takes, whether it be the government, a community, a family or an individual, will halt this. But the combined actions that we all take together will reduce the impact on our communities and on our health," Besser said.

Anne Schuchat, the CDC's interim deputy director for science and public health programs, echoed Besser's concerns during testimony before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday.

"Based on the pattern of illness that we're seeing here in the United States we don't think that this virus can be contained, that we can stop it at the border. But we do think we can reduce the impact of its spread and we can reduce the impact on health" by focusing on "community mitigation" efforts, Schuchat said.

These can include taking extra precautions such as stepped-up hand washing and increased diagnostic screening or simply avoiding sick people and keeping ill adults and children home from work and school to avoid further disease transmission.

To assist in these efforts, President Barack Obama asked Congress on Tuesday to add $1.5 billion to his 2009 supplemental budget request to help fight the swine flu outbreak.

In a letter to Congress, Obama said the money could be used to help boost stockpiles of antiviral medications, develop a swine flu vaccine or assist international efforts to stem the outbreak.

It remains unclear why the disease hasn't hit as severely outside Mexico, where roughly 150 people have died and more than 1,300 have been infected.

Besser said that authorities are looking at a number of factors, including whether the virus has changed, what differs about the environment where the infections occurred, how the immune systems of infected patients reacted as well as the ages and gender of those afflicted. In addition, health officials are evaluating initial medical treatment, how much time lapsed before the victims sought medical care and whether they received antiviral medications.

The World Health Organization reported that seven countries have confirmed cases of swine flu, and officials in Israel, New Zealand, Spain and Canada announced new infections on Tuesday as the virus continues to migrate across Europe and parts of the Middle East.

Of the 19 new U.S. cases confirmed Tuesday, 17 were in the same New York City high school where dozens of students were infected during a recent trip to Mexico for spring break.

The CDC recommends that schools close as a precaution if a swine flu case is confirmed. At least two schools, one in New York and one in Texas, have closed due to the virus, Besser said.

Nationally, 45 cases have been confirmed in New York, 10 in California, six in Texas, two in Kansas and one in Ohio. The CDC warns their totals may lag behind the individual state figures, which are more up-to-date.

Five U.S. patients, ranging in age from 7 to 54, have been hospitalized, Besser said. Three are in California, while two are in Texas.

The CDC has deployed personnel to both states to work with state and local health authorities.

A Gallup Poll found that more than 12 million Americans are ill with more common strains of the flu on any given day, and the CDC estimates that foodborne illnesses kill 5,000 Americans each year.

On Tuesday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency to help direct state funds and resources to addressing the health threat. California also became the first state in the nation to conduct its own tests for the flu strain, which speeds up detection efforts by not having to send test samples to the CDC.

Aside from asking travelers to avoid non-essential trips to Mexico, no additional travel restrictions were announced by late Tuesday.

The CDC is growing seed stocks of the flu virus so that if it decides to manufacture a swine flu vaccine, it can be put into production more quickly, Besser said.

While it's unclear if the swine flu threat will emerge into a pandemic, influenza pandemics historically have struck about three times a century. About 40 million people died in the global flu outbreak of 1918-1919, but some 36,000 people die each year of seasonal flu.

Health officials are urging people to cover their noses and mouths with tissues when coughing or sneezing and to wash their hands often with soap and water, especially after coughing or sneezing. Use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers also is encouraged and people should avoid touching their eyes, noses and mouths, since germs cans spread easily spread that way.

The CDC urges doctors who suspect that a patient may have swine flu to obtain a respiratory swab, place it in a refrigerator and then contact a state or local health department to arrange for a timely diagnosis at a state public health laboratory.

(Tish Wells contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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