- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

UPDATED:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday reported 109 confirmed swine-flu cases in 11 U.S. states, compared with 91 the day before.

Dr. Richard E. Besser, the agency’s acting director, said that the most recent case of somebody contracting the H1N1 virus was Sunday, most of the 109 people fell on April 18 and six people have been hospitalized.

Dr. Besser reported no additional deaths in the United States since the toddler from Mexico died Monday in Houston.

Arizona has one confirmed case, California has 14, Indiana has one, Kansas has two, Massachusetts has two, Michigan has one, Nevada has one, New York has 50, Ohio has one, South Carolina has 10 and Texas has 26.

The World Bank told employees to work from home on Thursday after an employee in Washington was preliminarily diagnosed with the virus, according to the Associated Press, and Maryland officials are reporting six probable cases.

RELATED STORY: Suspected swine flu at World Bank in D.C.

On Wednesday the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the threat level of the H1N1 swine flu outbreak to an imminent risk of pandemic.

“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 assistant director-general.

Raising the threat level from Phase 4 to Phase 5 occurs when a pandemic is imminent, and it signals that time is running short for affected countries to get prepared for widespread infections. The highest level, Phase 6, declares a pandemic.

President Obama said the government is continuing to closely monitor the emerging cases of the virus across the nation, calling it a very serious situation and saying it is a “cause for deep concern but not panic.”

Mr. Obama said that after consulting with public health officials and following their recommendations, he has decided not to close the border with Mexico at this time.

The WHO announcement came just hours after lawmakers on Capitol Hill squared off against top Obama administration officials and demanded tougher inspections at airports and Mexican ports to detect travelers carrying the virus and trying to enter the United States.

Key members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs were taken aback by the testimony of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and a top Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) official, who said they will not close off the border against a pandemic, no matter what.

“Making such a closure has not been merited by the facts,” Ms. Napolitano said.” It would have little marginal benefit of containing an outbreak in our own country.

“The virus doesn’t know when to stop at a border or not,” Ms. Napolitano said.

Demands to consider closing the border came as a Mexican toddler visiting relatives in Texas was diagnosed as having died from the virus Monday.

The six probable cases reported in Maryland were three each in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. One of the cases in each county involved a school-age child, but officials said they had no plans to close either school.

Officials say all six people either had traveled to Mexico recently or had relatives who did. Results of confirmation tests are expected Thursday.

Hundreds more cases are suspected in several of the states with confirmed cases. In addition, state officials in Maine say their state has three confirmed cases, though the CDC has not confirmed them. A Marine at Twentynine Palms, Calif., was confirmed as having swine flu and was isolated, along with his roommate. Another 30 Marines were being kept apart and observed until tests come back.

On Capitol Hill, the committee was informed that the earliest a vaccine could be developed would be September, just before the next flu season, which Ms. Napolitano and Rear Adm. Anne Schuchat, interim deputy director for the CDC’s Science and Public Health Program, said will produce a new wave of infections.

The officials said that while more than 30,000 deaths each year are attributable to seasonal flu, this “novel” virus carries more risk.

“It is a virus that has not been around before, so what we think is, that the general population does not have immunity to the virus, while the seasonable flu, a good proportion of the population has some immunity to it,” Dr. Schuchat said.

Dr. Schuchat said it was a “reasonable question” from committee members on both sides of the political aisle to ask why the administration intends to keep border entries open.

“We don’t think it’s a good strategy,” Dr. Schuchat said.

Asked directly by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, what conditions would require the closing of border, Dr. Schuchat said, “I don’t think there are any.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and committee chairman, said he was “surprised” by the administration’s response and urged it to close selected ports if the outbreak does turn into a pandemic.

“If not, then you need to ramp up review of people going back and forth,” Mr. Lieberman said.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, ranking Republican on the committee, criticized past efforts of border officials to prevent patients infected with serious diseases, and questioned why homeland security officials at airports and the border are not using new technology that can signal whether a traveler has a fever.

Miss Collins also questioned homeland security’s use of the word “passive” to describe its monitoring at border crossings.

Ms. Napolitano said they should not have used the word “passive.” Instead, she said, “There is a protocol in place on how this is done.”

Ms. Napolitano said 49 border crossers who “may have looked sick” were detained and tested for the virus. All but eight had been cleared of carrying the infection, and the other results were pending.

However, she rejected the senators’ suggestions for new technology such as scanners and border closures as “symbolic measures” that will not stop the virus spread.

Deputy National Security Adviser John O. Brennan has ruled out bioterrorism as the cause of the outbreak.

The child’s death prompted Mr. Obama to urge school officials with confirmed or suspected H1N1 cases to “strongly consider temporarily closing so we can be as safe as possible.”

Mr. Obama said local and school officials should stay “vigilant” by identifying suspected cases and reporting them quickly. About 100 schools nationwide have been closed.

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

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

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

Dr. Persse said the boy then “rapidly” became ill, was admitted to a Brownsville hospital and transferred April 13 to one in Houston before dying Monday night. Officials also said the boy had underlying health problems, but have not elaborated.

Texas Health Services Commissioner Dr. David Lakey called it “highly likely” that the boy, whom officials have declined to identify, contracted the illness in Mexico. He crossed the border weeks before any warnings about an outbreak in Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of people cross the U.S.-Mexico border every day, legally and illegally.

Both Texas and California have declared public health emergencies, and on Wednesday, Texas called off all public high school athletic and academic competitions at least until May 11.

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 and the 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,” Mrs. Sebelius said.

Mexico’s health minister said 159 residents have been killed and more than 2,500 sickened by the virus, discovered first in Mexico in early April. The government is temporarily suspending all nonessential activity of the federal government and private business because the number of confirmed swine flu cases has jumped.

Health Secretary Jose Cordova said nonessential federal government offices will be closed May 1-5, the Associated Press reported. He said all nonessential private businesses must also close for that period but essential services like transportation, supermarkets, trash collection and hospitals will remain open.

The WHO reports roughly 112 cases worldwide, including the 64 in the U.S., 26 in Mexico, six in Canada, three in New Zealand, two in Spain, two in the United Kingdom and two in Israel.

The WHO figures include only cases confirmed by selected labs and every country’s own health system reports higher numbers.

Costa Rican health officials have confirmed one case, and New Zealand health officials have confirmed 11 additional cases. Germany and Austria on Wednesday became the latest countries to report their first swine flu cases: four and one, respectively.

The last major flu pandemic to hit the U.S. was the Hong Kong Flu of 1968-69, which killed about 1 million people worldwide and more than 33,000 Americans. The H5N1 avian flu that peaked in 2006-07 is not considered a pandemic because, although the WHO says it has killed more than 250 people in several nations across Asia and Africa, the virus primarily affects birds and has not shown the ability to spread from human to human.

• Christina Bellantoni, Mike Drost, Eli Lake and Sean Lengell contributed to this report.

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