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Obama: Swine flu not reason for 'alarm'

Posted April 27, 2009

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— President Barack Obama said Monday the threat of spreading swine flu infections is matter of concern but "not a cause for alarm." The United States and other countries across the globe increased their vigilance as the World Health Organization said there are now 40 confirmed cases in the U.S.

That's twice the number previously reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The WHO, a United Nations agency, said none of the cases in the U.S. has been fatal.

Amid increasing worries about a possible global pandemic, Obama told a gathering of scientists that his administration's 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."

The acting head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier Monday had said that people should be prepared for the problem to become more severe, and that it could involve "possibly deaths." Dr. Richard Besser said U.S. officials were questioning border visitors about how their health.

The quickening pace of developments in the United States in response to some 1,600 swine flu infections in neighboring Mexico was accompanied by a host of varying responses around the world. The European Union advised against nonessential travel to the United States and Mexico, China, Taiwan and Russia considered quarantines and several Asian countries scrutinized visitors arriving at their airports.

In the United States, a private school in South Carolina was closed Monday because of fears that young people returning from Mexico might have been infected.

"We are closely monitoring the emerging cases of swine flu in the United States," Obama said. "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 so that they know what steps are being taken and what steps they may need to take."

"But one thing is clear: Our capacity to deal with a public health challenge of this sort rests heavily on the work of our scientific and medical community," the president said. "And this is one more example of why we cannot allow our nation to fall behind."

Besser described the new U.S. border initiative as "passive screening." He said authorities were "asking people about fever and illness, looking for people who are ill."

The U.S. declared a national health emergency in the midst of uncertainty about what the mounting sick count - 1,600 or more in Mexico alone - meant ongoing infections or merely resulted from health officials missing something that had been simmering for weeks or months. The declaration did, nevertheless, allow Washington to ship roughly 12 million doses of flu-fighting medications from a federal stockpile to states in case they eventually need them.

Besser traveled the morning news-show circuit Monday, telling interviewers the U.S. government was being "extremely aggressive" and saying he wouldn't personally recommend traveling to parts of Mexico where the new virus has taken hold. But he noted that the issue of a travel ban was under discussion and that nothing had been decided.

Besser said he was not reassured by the fact that so far in the U.S., no one has died from the disease.

"From what we understand in Mexico, I think people need to be ready for the idea that we could see more severe cases in this country and possibly deaths," he said. "That's something people have to be ready for and we're looking for that. So far, thankfully, we haven't seen that. But we're very concerned and that's why we're taking very aggressive measures."

Meanwhile, officials of Newberry Academy in South Carolina said Monday in a statement that seniors from the school were in Mexico earlier this month and some had flu like symptoms when they returned.

State Department of Health and Environmental Control spokesman Jim Beasley said test results on the students could come back as early as Monday afternoon. The agency has stepped up efforts to investigate all flu cases in South Carolina. There have been no confirmed swine flu cases in the state.

A New York City school where eight cases were confirmed will be closed Monday and Tuesday, and 14 schools in Texas, including a high school where two cases were confirmed, will be closed for at least the next week. Some schools in California and Ohio also were closing after students were found or suspected to have the flu.

In Mexico, the outbreak's epicenter, soldiers handed out 6 million face masks to help stop the spread of the novel virus that is suspected in up to 103 deaths. Most other countries are reporting only mild cases so far, with most of the sick already recovering. Cases have been confirmed in Canada - six - and the U.S. - 20.

Spain reported its first confirmed swine flu case on Monday and said another 17 people were suspected of having the disease. The European Union health commissioner advised Europeans to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico and the United States. Also, three New Zealanders recently returned from Mexico are suspected of having it.

Complicating response strategies was what World Health Organization spokesman Peter Cordingley described as major difficulty that experts were having in assessing precisely the nature of the threat.

"These are the early days. It's quite clear that there is a potential for this virus to become a pandemic and threaten globally," Cordingley said. He said it was spreading rapidly in Mexico and the southern United States.

Cordingley said "honestly don't know" the extent of the problem. He added: "We don't know enough yet about how this virus operates. More work needs to be done."

Multiple airlines, including American, United, Continental, US Airways, Mexicana and Air Canada, said they were waiving usual penalties for changing reservations for anyone traveling to, from, or through Mexico, but have not canceled flights.

The World Bank pledged to send Mexico $25 million in loans for immediate aid and $180 million in long-term assistance to address the outbreak, plus advice on how other nations have dealt with similar crises. Mexico officials say the flu strain may have sickened 1,614 people since April 13 but laboratory testing to confirm that and how many truly died from it - at least 22 so far out of the 103 suspected deaths - is taking time.

Worldwide, attention focused sharply on travelers.

"It was acquired in Mexico, brought home and spread," Nova Scotia's chief public health officer, Dr. Robert Strang, said of Canada's first confirmed cases.

Besser said that while the U.S. hasn't advised against travel to Mexico, it has urged people to take precautions, such as frequent hand-washing while there.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • north 501 Apr 27, 2009

    There are 300 milliom people in the USA. 40 of them have the swine flu and are recovering. There are 40 million people in Canada. 6 of them have the flu. There are 111 million people in Mexico. Just over 1000 have the flu and 20 to maybe 103 of them have died. As the President said, this is cause for concern but not alarm.

  • djofraleigh Apr 27, 2009

    On the one hand the government declared a Health EMERGENCY on Sunday and then the president says there is no ALARM on Monday.

    The government needs to coordinate and get some common vocabulary to use. Bush tried to avoid the words and use code words, Orange, yellow, etc. Didn't work.

    I think both Obama and his Sec of Homeland Security Napolitano were saying the same thing, but using "loaded" words like ALARM & EMERGENCY put their messages at odds with one another resulting in failure to communicate.

    Presidents have become objects of ridicule & scorn, someone treated like umps at ballgames. Reagan was treated poorly, Clinton bad, Bush the worst (called stupid, dumb & made fun of nightly on TV), and Obama has been picked on from the first, but he is still treated good on late night. News commentators are actually being easy on him for some reason.

    Obama is self-assured and he can take it, if he even hears it.

    There's nothing to pick at him here on the flu matter.

  • ObamaMustGo aka NCcarguy Apr 27, 2009

    WHAT? All of the local, regional, national, and WORLD health organizations are in a panic, but Obama says......don't worry about it???? I'm sure MOST of you aren't going to DIE from it.

  • groovyguru Apr 27, 2009

    "Its truly disgusting that you people are so racist that you cannot even give President Obama any respect. But guess what it will come back to you ten fold, you are talking about people who are in power who vow to make sure you are safe."

    I see. Anyone who disagrees with Obama is a racist. BTW, who are "you people?" We can play the race card too. I tell you what. We'll give Obama the same respect you neolibs gave GW. It's payback time.

  • Adelinthe Apr 27, 2009

    Yeah, like we're gona believe him.

    "Why can't I just eat my waffle?"
    After being asked a foreign policy question by a reporter while visiting a diner in Pennsylvania

    Praying for all.

    God bless.


  • Uneekladi1 Apr 27, 2009

    Its truly disgusting that you people are so racist that you cannot even give President Obama any respect. But guess what it will come back to you ten fold, you are talking about people who are in power who vow to make sure you are safe. If you have read the stories you would realize that we should not panic yet, there have been few cases here and of those cases many people went to Mexico to bring the flu back here. If we start to panic like people did for Y2K and then there will be people running to the doctors spending money that they don't have just because they think that they are sick. Some of you need to grow up and face facts that he is the President and you should at least respect the man even if you don't like him.

  • BoSox_Girl Apr 27, 2009

    You know what that headline made me think of?

    • Bugs: Eh, pardon me, Doc, but could you rent me one of them flying saucers? I gotta get back to the Earth.
    • Marvin the Martian: The Earth? Oh, there isn’t going to be an earth in just a few seconds.
    • Bugs: Oh, well, don't bother, then. No point in wasting money on a flying saucer when the Earth's not gonna... DOOOIINGG! Eh, pardon me again, Doc, but, uh, just what did you mean by that crack about the Earth…
    • Marvin the Martian: Oh, I'm going to blow it up; it obstructs my view of Venus.

  • ottumwanurse Apr 27, 2009

    Yeah right! Like anyone with intelligence trusts B. Hussein Obama or the WHO! Obama is a failure! He can't count to two without Soros whispering how in his ear! The WHO makes up statistics to fit their agenda.

  • Weaker Pelosi Apr 27, 2009

    rmgirl: funny u said that, i was thinking along those lines earlier.

  • dholes Apr 27, 2009

    Tell me WHY I care what Obama thinks??