WASHINGTON Swine flu is spreading more quickly in the U.S. Southeast, where schools started back earlier than in other areas after the summer break, a U.S. health official said Wednesday.
The pandemic H1N1 influenza virus has been active since March but officials have seen a clear "uptick" in activity in some areas in recent weeks, Dr. Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters.
"That little uptick we are seeing is all in the Southeast, in the school age children," Schuchat said.
Health experts say school age children and young adults are more likely than others to be infected with swine flu, and have said they expected the pandemic to become more active as schools started back and children mixed with one another.
"School is back and people are beginning to pay attention," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters at a meeting about swine flu.
The CDC has advised against closing schools unless there are many illnesses, saying such measures will do little to stop flu's spread.
Tuesday, New York City health officials said all primary school-age children there would be offered free vaccines for seasonal and H1N1 flu this year.
The White House said the government's efforts are aimed at minimizing the impact of H1N1 on the health of the nation and the economy. This includes education about hygiene, especially as a vaccine against H1N1 will not be widely available until October.
"We don't expect to have vaccine before there are increases in disease," Schuchat said.
Five companies are making swine flu vaccine for the U.S. market -- AstraZeneca's MedImmune unit, CSL Ltd, GlaxoSmithKline Plc, Novartis AG and Sanofi-Aventis SA.
Seasonal flu infects between 5 percent and 20 percent of a given population every year but 90 percent of severe cases and deaths are among the elderly. It kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people globally.
Because this virus is new, more people are susceptible to it and the World Health Organization has been predicting for months now that 2 billion people will likely become infected.
Sebelius says she's worried about sick people rushing to emergency rooms and the "worried well" besieging doctors. "We know that there may be a tendency to overwhelm the healthcare system," Sebelius said.
So the U.S. government is rolling out flu education and communication campaigns so that people who do not need medical care do not seek it.
People with asthma, lung disease, diabetes, heart disease, as well as pregnant women and the morbidly obese have a much higher risk than most people of becoming severely ill with flu. The CDC says these people, as well as children, healthcare workers and young adults, should get the H1N1 vaccine first when it becomes available.
Seasonal flu vaccine is available and HHS and CDC urge Americans to get that vaccine now, even though it offers no protection against H1N1, because seasonal flu may also circulate.
Tuesday, the CDC enlisted the help of Elmo, the colorful puppet from the children's TV program Sesame Street, to encourage children to wash their hands and cough into the crook of their arms in four public service announcement spots.
(Editing by Phil Stewart)