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Global Health Officials Work To Contain Swine Flu


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

U.S. health officials have declared a public health emergency as the number of suspected cases of swine flu - both here and abroad - continues to grow. Swine flu has now been confirmed in five U.S. states, as well as Canada, Spain and Mexico. President Barack Obama this morning told an audience at the National Academy of Sciences that it's not a time to panic.


President BARACK OBAMA: This is obviously a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert. But it's not a cause for alarm.

MONTAGNE: Late yesterday, Mexico's health minister raised the number of suspected deaths from swine flu in that country. It now stands at 103. In a few minutes, we'll hear from Mexico City.

First, NPR's Jon Hamilton reports that the number of swine flu cases is likely to climb in the next few weeks though it's not clear whether swine flu poses a major health threat to global health.

JON HAMILTON: During a White House press briefing, U.S. officials said repeatedly that they're taking an aggressive approach to swine flu. Dr. Richard Besser - acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - said it's good news that the U.S. has seen only mild cases so far, a lot like ordinary flu. But he says there had been deaths in Mexico.

Dr. RICHARD BESSER (Acting Director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): It looks to be the same virus as is causing the situation in Mexico. And given the reports out of Mexico, I would expect that over time, we're going to see more severe disease in this country.


HAMILTON: How much more and will there be a lot of deaths in the U.S.? No one knows. And no one knows why the virus has been deadly in Mexico, but not the U.S. or even how many people in Mexico have the virus.

Dr. Keiji Fukuda is from the World Health Organization. He said during a press conference in Geneva that Mexico has reported more than 1,400 cases of severe infections that might be swine flu.

Dr. KEIJI FUKUDA (World Health Organization): I want to point out these are cases of respiratory illness and we don't really know whether these cases represent a lot of swine flu infections or very few swine flu infections.

HAMILTON: Fukuda said another problem is that flu viruses like this one tend to change often very rapidly.

Dr. FUKUDA: They can become more dangerous for people. That is to cause more serious disease or they're also able to mutate so they cause less serious disease. And that's very difficult to predict. And it is one of the things that we will watch for very carefully.

HAMILTON: With so much uncertainty, U.S. officials are trying to take precautions that don't require drastic measures, like closing borders or canceling public events. Janet Napolitano is the Secretary of Homeland Security, which is in charge of the government's response. She said one thing the government can do is make sure drugs are available.

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (U.S. Department of Homeland Security): We have 50 million treatment courses of antiviral drugs - Tamiflu and Relenza in the Strategic National Stockpile. We are releasing 25 percent of those courses making them available to all of the states, but particularly the states where we already have confirmed incidents of the flu.

HAMILTON: The National Stockpile is part of an effort that's been going on for years to prepare for a flu pandemic. Health officials say hospital supplies are ready to be dispatched at a moment's notice and that work on a vaccine against the new virus is already underway. But for now, Napolitano says, the most important measures are things that ordinary people can do to protect themselves.

Sec. NAPOLITANO: We need everybody in United States to take some responsibility. If you are sick, stay home, wash your hands, take all of those reasonable measures that will help us mitigate how many people actually get sick in our country.

HAMILTON: And if you've been to an area with swine flu and have flu symptoms, call a doctor.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.