- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

BREAKING NEWS:

Maryland health officials have announced six probable cases of swine flu in the state, including two children.

John Colmers, state secretary of health and mental hygiene, said that a family of three in Anne Arundel County may have developed the disease after being in contact with another uninfected family member who recently traveled to Mexico. Another three suspected cases have been reported in Baltimore County, including two family members and another unrelated case.

Mr. Colmers said one of the children with the flu goes to Milford Mill Academy in Baltimore County, while the other goes to Folger McKinsey Elementary School in Anne Arundel County.

Gov. Martin O’Malley said that there are currently no plans to close the schools where the two suspected children attend.

The spread of the virus in the United States and the first death in the country attributed to the swine flu prompted President Obama to urge school officials with confirmed or suspected H1N1 cases to “strongly consider temporarily closing so we can be as safe as possible.”

The toddler who died of the infection came from Mexico and was visiting family in Texas, a Houston health official said Wednesday morning.

Dr. David E. Persse, Houston’s EMS physician director, said the 23-month-old and his family arrived in the United States on April 4 by taking a commercial flight from Mexico City to Matamoros and then crossing the border into Brownsville.

Dr. Persse said the boy then “rapidly” became ill, was admitted to a Brownsville hospital and transferred April 14 to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston before dying Monday night. Officials also said the boy had underlying health problems and did not contract the illness in Houston.

The University Interscholastic League has suspended athletic activity throughout Texas until May 11.

Mr. Obama also said local and school officials should stay “vigilant” by identifying suspected cases and reporting them quickly.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, speaking at a Wednesday morning news conference during her first full day on the job, said that while it’s difficult to predict what the virus will do next, “we expect to see more cases, more hospitalizations, and unfortunately we’re likely to see additional deaths from the outbreak.”

Mrs. Sebelius said the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified “virus reference strains” of the flu and are working on a vaccine.

“We’ve begun the process, we’re in full gear, and the process is more speedy than it’s ever been,” she said.

The number of confirmed cases Wednesday in the United States increased to 91 in 10 states, up from 64 in five states Tuesday, said Dr. Richard E. Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New York has 51 confirmed cases, Texas has 16, California has 14, Massachusetts has 2, Michigan has two, Arizona has one, Nevada has one, Indiana has one, Kansas has two and Ohio has one.

Dr. Besser said the death has not changed the agency’s recommendations to prevent the virus, including keeping sick children home from school.

He also repeated that deaths were anticipated as the virus reaches its peak.

“As I’ve been saying for the past several days, we have expected that we would see more severe [illnesses] and that we would see deaths,” Dr. Besser said.

Mr. Obama said parents should think about “contingencies” if schools close because sending a sick child to a day-care center is “not a solution.”

“This is obviously a serious situation, serious enough to take the utmost precautions,” the president said.

Mr. Obama said local officials should identify suspected cases and report them quickly, adding, “Schools with confirmed or suspected cases should strongly consider temporarily closing so we can be as safe as possible.”

“Every American should know the federal government is prepared to do whatever is necessary to control this virus,” he said.

Mr. Obama asked Americans to be careful and take “the same steps you would take to prevent any other flu,” such as washing hands, covering a cough and staying home when sick.

He added, “My thoughts and prayers and deepest condolences go out to the family and those who are sick or recovering from the illness.”

Mexico’s health minister said more than 2,500 residents are sick with virus, discovered first in Mexico in early April.

The World Health Organization reports roughly 112 cases worldwide, including the 64 in the United States, 26 in Mexico, six in Canada, three in New Zealand, two in Spain, two in the United Kingdom and two in Israel.

Costa Rican health officials have confirmed one case, and New Zealand health officials have confirmed 11 additional cases.

In the United States, Indiana is reporting at least one case not confirmed by the CDC.

Meanwhile, a key World Health Organization official said the agency is considering raising the global threat level for the second time in two days, a reflection of the human-to-human transmission that epidemiologists have feared.

“It’s clear that the virus is spreading, and we don’t see any evidence of this slowing down at this point,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director-general. He said a formal analysis of lab results and reports from WHO field representatives suggest that they are seeing person-to-person transmission in a number of places.

The Geneva-based organization has been conservative in its estimates, counting only those infections verified in a handful of laboratories. Dr. Fukuda acknowledged that the current numbers are low but likely will rise as more confirmations are received. In Mexico, WHO counts only 26 flu infections, roughly one-seventh of the government’s total.

“We are moving closer to [security level] Phase 5, but I don’t think we are there yet,” Dr. Fukuda told reporters via a conference call on Wednesday.

Level 5 is considered the most dangerous of epidemics and is invoked only when there is sustained transmission between humans and widespread infection in at least two different places.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a flu-related state of emergency on Monday.

Dr. Fukuda said authorities still do not know exactly how the virus began to infect human beings, nor do they know exactly how the virus spreads. He said it is still unclear why the Mexican strain of the H1N1 virus is so much more deadly than the generally weaker influenza seen in the United States and other countries.

Michael Drost, Sean Lengell and Betsy Pisik contributed to this article.

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