National News

N.C. health officials keeping eye on swine flu

Posted April 25, 2009 12:07 p.m. EDT

— Public health officials said Saturday that North Carolinians should take normal precautions for the flu season while the state monitors the swine flu outbreak in Texas, California and Mexico that officials fear could become a global pandemic.

In Mexico, at least 62 people have died from severe pneumonia caused by a flu-like illness in Mexico, according to the World Health Organization. At least 20 are confirmed to have had a unique version of the A/H1N1 flu virus that is a combination of bird, pig and human viruses, which has sickened about 1,000 people in 14 of Mexico's 32 states.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed six cases of swine flu in California and two in Texas. No deaths have been reported, and only one patient had to be hospitalized.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the outbreak of swine flu is a quickly evolving situation that could become a global threat.

"This is an animal strain of the H1N1 virus, and it has pandemic potential because it is infecting people," Chan said. "However, we cannot say, on the basis of currently available laboratory, epidemiological and clinical evidence, whether or not it will indeed cause a pandemic."

North Carolina public health officials stressed that swine influenza hasn't been detected east of the Mississippi, much less in the state. The state is dissemenating information with regional and local health providers, officials said.

“We want North Carolinians to know that we are actively participating in CDC efforts to detect the disease and are coordinating with doctors and health providers across the state,” State Health Director Jeff Engel said.

“As with all flu events, people should cover their mouths and noses when sneezing or coughing, avoid close contact with people who are sick, and wash their hands often," he advised.

Anyone who has recently traveled to southern California, Texas or Mexico and develops flu-like symptoms should contact their doctor and inform them of their travel.

Health providers who are participating in the national Influenza Sentinel Provider Network are taking viral cultures from all patients who have flu-like symptoms.

The WHO was holding an emergency meeting Saturday to discuss declaring an international public health emergency, which would triggered travel advisories, trade restrictions and border closures. Spokesman Gregory Hartl said a decision would not be made Saturday.

Scientists have warned for years about the potential for a pandemic from viruses that mix genetic material from humans and animals. Another cause for concern, authorities said, is that so far, the swine flu hasn't killed the usual vulnerable infants and elderly. The Spanish flu pandemic, which killed at least 40 million people worldwide in 1918-19, also first struck otherwise healthy young adults.

Airports around the world have started screening passengers from Mexico for symptoms of the new flu strain and might quarantine passengers.

Experts at WHO and CDC, though, say the nature of this outbreak might make containment already impossible. They noted there had been no direct contact between the cases in the San Diego and San Antonio areas, suggesting the virus had already spread from one geographic area through other undiagnosed people.

Swine flu is usually transmitted by contact with pigs. It is not transmitted by eating pork.

A "seed stock" genetically matched to the new swine flu virus has been created by the CDC, said Dr. Richard Besser, the agency's acting director. If the government decides vaccine production is necessary, manufacturers would need that stock to get started.

The CDC says two flu drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza, seem effective against the new strain. Roche, the maker of Tamiflu, said the company is prepared to immediately deploy a stockpile of the drug if requested. Both drugs must be taken early, within a few days of the onset of symptoms, to be most effective.