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US declares public health emergency for swine flu

The U.S. declared a public health emergency Sunday to deal with the emerging new swine flu, much like the government does to prepare for approaching hurricanes.

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. declared a public health emergency Sunday to deal with the emerging new swine flu, much like the government does to prepare for approaching hurricanes.

Officials reported 20 U.S. cases of swine flu in five states so far, with the latest in Ohio and New York. Unlike in Mexico where the same strain appears to be killing dozens of people, cases in the United State have been mild - and U.S. health authorities can't yet explain why.

"As we continue to look for cases, we are going to see a broader spectrum of disease," predicted Dr. Richard Besser, acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We're going to see more severe disease in this country."

At a White House news conference, Besser and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano sought to assure Americans that health officials are taking all appropriate steps to minimize the impact of the outbreak.

Top among those is declaring the public health emergency. As part of that, Napolitano said roughly 12 million doses of the drug Tamiflu will be moved from a federal stockpile to places where states can quickly get their share if they decide they need it. Priority will be given to the five states with known cases so far: California, Texas, New York, Ohio and Kansas.

Napolitano called the emergency declaration standard operating procedure - one was declared recently for the inauguration and for flooding. She urged people to think of it as a "declaration of emergency preparedness."

"Really that's what we're doing right now. We're preparing in an environment where we really don't know ultimately what the size of seriousness of this outbreak is going to be."

In North Carolina no cases of the swine flu have been reported, but state public health officials are asking residents to follow the same precautions they take during any flu season.

“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 hands often," State Health Director Jeff Engel said.

"We're OK here so far," said Bill Furney, communication coordinator with the Division of Public Health in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Furney said Sunday that his agency has been in contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as with local health care providers. He said the effort was to make sure the information his department had was up to date. He said his office had also been talking to local health officials to make sure they have the information they need.

State Fair Public Affairs Director Brian Long said there is no reason to panic and not enjoy a barbecue pork sandwich. People should ensure that their pork is cooked the proper way.

Officials at Duke University will meet on Monday to discuss the school's strategy for dealing with a potential case of swine flu. Students are considered susceptible because of their travels, especially to Mexico, where that country's health minister says the disease has killed up to 86 people and likely sickened up to 1,400 since April 13.

Duke News Service spokeswoman Camille Jackson said the meeting will involve health workers, the office of student affairs, the communications office and the head of Duke's global health program. Jackson said the meeting was coordinated by President Richard Brodhead's office.

The meeting will develop an appropriate response and how to communicate it to the Duke community, Jackson said.

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