Swine Flu Leads to School Closures

WASHINGTON (AP) - Hundreds of schools scattered around the
country closed as the nation's swine flu caseload passed 100
Thursday, and U.S. authorities said they eventually could produce
enough vaccine for everyone if necessary - but that shots couldn't
begin until fall at the earliest.

The outbreak penetrated over a dozen states and even touched the
White House, which disclosed that an aide to Energy Secretary
Steven Chu apparently got sick helping arrange President Barack
Obama's recent trip to Mexico but that the aide did not fly on Air
Force One and never posed a risk to the president.

An estimated 12,000 people logged onto a Webcast where the
government's top emergency officials sought to cut confusion by
answering questions straight from the public: Can a factory worker
handling parts from Mexico catch the virus? No. Can pets get it?
No.

And is washing hands or using those alcohol-based hand gels
best? Washing well enough is the real issue, answered Dr. Richard
Besser, acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. He keeps hand gel in his pocket for between-washings
but also suggested that people sing "Happy Birthday" as they wash
their hands to make sure they've washed long enough to get rid of
germs.

It is safe to fly, U.S. officials found themselves stressing
after Vice President Joe Biden got off message Thursday. Biden said
he'd discourage family members from flying or even taking the
subway. The White House insisted the vice president meant to say he
was discouraging just nonessential travel to Mexico, the
hardest-hit area.

"It is safe to fly. There is no reason to cancel flights,"
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. Not just planes but "all
modes of transportation are safe in America," he added.

But anyone with flu-like symptoms shouldn't be traveling
anywhere unless they need to seek medical care - the same advice
that doctors give during the winter when regular flu kills 36,000
Americans each year.

"If you're ill, you shouldn't get on an airplane or any public
transport to travel," CDC's Dr. Anne Schuchat told a congressional
hearing. "If you're sick, stay home. I can't tell you how many
times I've said that this week."

So far U.S. cases are fairly mild for the most part, with one
death, a Mexican toddler who visited Texas with his family - unlike
in Mexico where more than 160 suspected deaths have been reported.
In fact, Schuchat said most of the U.S. cases so far didn't need a
doctor's care.

Still, the U.S. is taking extraordinary precautions, including
shipping millions of doses of anti-flu drugs to states in case
they're needed against what the World Health Organization has
called an imminent pandemic, because scientists cannot predict what
a brand-new virus might do.

The Health and Human Services Department said late Thursday the
government was buying 13 million treatment courses of anti-flu
drugs to replenish the U.S. strategic stockpile and help fight the
swine flu outbreak. The U.S. on Thursday also began sending 400,000
treatment courses of the drugs to Mexico to help against swine flu
there.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the
government was spending an estimated $251 million to replace the 11
million treatment courses offered to states recently and to
purchase 2 million more courses. Part of the additional 2 million
treatment courses will replace the drugs sent to Mexico.

The U.S. has stockpiled about 50 million courses of anti-viral
drugs and states have an additional 23 million. A treatment course
is the amount needed to treat one person.

A key concern is whether this spring outbreak of swine flu will
resurge in the fall.

Remember, CDC's Besser cautioned, not every pandemic is like the
disaster of 1918. "There are some pandemics that look very much
like a bad flu season," he said.

Scientists are racing to prepare the key ingredient to make a
vaccine against the never-before-seen flu strain, but it will take
several months before the first pilot lots begin required human
testing to make sure the vaccine is safe and effective. If all goes
well, broader production could start in the fall - if officials
decide that's needed in addition to, or instead of, regular flu
vaccine.

"We think 600 million doses is achievable in a six-month time
frame" from that fall start, Health and Human Services Assistant
Secretary Craig Vanderwagen told lawmakers.

"I don't want anybody to have false expectations. The science
is challenging here," Vanderwagen told reporters. "Production can
be done, robust production capacity is there. It's a question of
can we get the science worked on the specifics of this vaccine."

Hundreds of schools were closed, with about 300 closures in
Texas alone. At least seven Texas school districts have been closed
entirely, including the 144-school Fort Worth Independent School
District, affecting about 80,000 students. Officials in Texas were
disinfecting school buildings, buses and playground equipment. High
schools sports were suspended in the state as well as in Alabama.

"We do think it's very prudent to close schools when a case has
been confirmed or is highly suspect," CDC's Schuchat told
lawmakers Thursday.

Colleges are seeing cases too. Four were confirmed at the
University of Delaware, and in Pennsylvania, Slippery Rock
University will hold a separate graduation Saturday for 22 students
who recently returned from Mexico and won't be beyond an incubation
period.

"People went to Mexico for spring break, came back and now
we're seeing second and third generation spread," said Dr. Dan
Jernigan, CDC senior science officer.

Closing a school alone won't stop community spread.

"If a school is closed, it's not closed so kids can go out to
the mall or go out to the community at large," Homeland Security
Secretary Janet Napolitano said. "Keep your young ones at home."

That means businesses will have to handle parents who miss work,
Biden reiterated: "And the hope is that the employers will be
generous in terms of how they treat that employee's necessary
action of taking that child home and not being at work."

The CDC confirmed 109 cases Thursday, and state officials
confirm 21 more. Cases now are confirmed in: New York, Texas,
California, South Carolina, Kansas, Massachusetts, Indiana, Ohio,
Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, Colorado, Georgia,
Minnesota and Virginia.


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