- The Washington Times - Monday, April 27, 2009

UPDATED:

President Barack Obama is set Monday to address the swine flu outbreak that has killed more than 100 people in Mexico and has sickened at least 20 people in four U.S. states.

Mr. Obama will address the issue at a meeting of top U.S. scientists and follows his administration’s decision Sunday to declare a public health emergency.

The 20 confirmed cases have been reported in recent days in California, Kansas, New York, Ohio and Texas, with those infected as young as 9. The same strain of A/H1N1 swine flu has killed as many as 103 people in Mexico and likely sickened more than 1,300 since April 13.

The Health and Human Services Department on Sunday declared a “public health emergency” in the United States - a routine procedure that allows money and resources to be made immediately available for state governments to combat the flu.

The emergency declaration “is standard operating procedure and allows us to free up federal, state and local agencies and their resources for prevention and mitigation,” Ms. Napolitano said.

On Sunday, the CDC confirmed that swine flu had infected eight students from New York City’s St. Francis Preparatory School, among a dozen students who had spent spring break in the Mexican resort city of Cancun. About 75 students complained of flulike symptoms last week.

All the cases were mild, but the city’s school district has ordered the students to stay home and the Queens school to close through Tuesday in order to be scrubbed clean. Schools in California and Texas also will be closed for several days in response to infections among students.

U.S. and World Health Organization investigators are unsure about how easily this strain is spread from person to person, but New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said Sunday that some family members of the students also had flu symptoms, “suggesting it is spreading person to person.”

Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrats, issued a joint statement asking their constituents to remain calm.

“While we continue gathering information and working hard to prepare for wide-scale emergency, we do not have a clear picture of the problem at this time,” the senators said.

People legally traveling to the United States from Mexico will be allowed entry provided that they don’t show symptoms of the flu virus, Ms. Napolitano said at the White House news conference. Travelers who do exhibit symptoms of the virus will be quarantined.

“We have implemented passive surveillance protocols to screen individuals who may arrive at our borders,” she said.

The U.S. government has implemented no travel restrictions to Mexico, although the CDC has posted travel warnings on its Web site regarding the flu outbreak.

“We’re going to continue to evaluate the situation in Mexico and if need be we will increase the warnings based on what the situation warrants,” Dr. Besser said.

Elsewhere around the world, six confirmed cases surfaced in Canada. Some of those infected were students who began to feel sick while in Mexico.

Brazil said it is observing some suspected cases. New Zealand said swine flu had sickened as many as 13 students who took school trips to Mexico. Spain reported its first confirmed swine flu case on Monday and said another 17 people were suspected of having the disease.

World Health Organization spokesman Peter Cordingley said the new virus is raising fears of a global pandemic.

“These are early days [but] it’s quite clear that there is a potential for this virus to become a pandemic and threaten globally,” he told AP Television News. “But we honestly don’t know. We don’t know enough yet about how this virus operates. More work needs to be done.”

The European Union health commissioner advised Europeans to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico and the United States. And similar organizations around the world are planning such advisories.

China, Russia and Taiwan began planning to quarantine travelers arriving from flu-affected areas if they have symptoms. Italy, Poland and Venezuela advised citizens to postpone travel to affected parts of Mexico and the U.S.

Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and the Philippines were checking for signs of fever among passengers arriving at airports from North America. In Malaysia, health workers in face masks took the temperatures of passengers as they arrived from a flight from Los Angeles.

Travelers with flu-like symptoms would be given detailed health checks.

Several major international airlines - including Mexicana, United, American and Air Canada - said on their Web sites that passengers who booked flights either to or via Mexico City may reschedule their flights or travel dates without penalty.

In Mexico City, large gatherings were virtually nonexistent Sunday - church services were canceled, and markets and restaurants were closed. According to news reports, the streets of what is usually one of the world’s busiest cities were near-deserted and people were wearing masks; the Mexican army distributed 6 million of them across the country.

The World Bank announced a $25 million loan to Mexico for immediate aid and $180 million in long-term assistance in response to the outbreak.

Dr. Besser said the spread of new flu strains is difficult to predict and that the CDC response will change accordingly. He said the agency’s Web site will post daily updates on the spread of the flu.

“We expect that we’ll be changing our recommendations over time based on what we learn,” Dr. Besser said.

Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said the administration wouldn’t rule out travel advisories to Mexico if the flu outbreak worsens.

“Let’s just put it this way: The president is taking this very seriously,” Ms. Jarrett said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Ms. Jarrett said the president did not get sick during or after his trip to Mexico this month.

Ms. Napolitano said a quarter of the 50 million treatments of anti-viral vaccines in the CDC’s Strategic National Stockpile will be made available to state governments.

Ms. Napolitano added that people can help contain the spread of the flu by taking steps such as routine hand-washing and staying home if sick.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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