U.S. acts swiftly to contain swine flu outbreak

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States declared a public health emergency on Sunday because of an outbreak of swine flu that has been diagnosed in 20 people in this country -- the same strain suspected of killing 81 people in Mexico.

The outbreak is yet another distraction for President Barack Obama as he focuses on rescuing the economy from its worst crisis in decades. His administration will also be mindful of the damage to former President George W. Bush over his government’s inept handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“At this point, a top priority is to ensure that communication is robust and that medical surveillance efforts are fully activated,” John Brennan, assistant to the president for Homeland Security, told a White House briefing.

Dr Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told a separate briefing she feared that some people would die in the United States as the virus spread.

Health and Homeland Security officials announced steps to release some of the U.S. stockpiles of the anti-flu drugs Tamiflu and Relenza. They recommended that local authorities plan for possible school closures and that anyone with symptoms stay at home to reduce the possibility of transmission.

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White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said it was too early to say what impact the outbreak could have on efforts to get the economy back on its feet. Spiraling healthcare costs are already a huge drain on the economy.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the declaration of the public health emergency was necessary to free federal, state and local agencies’ resources and authorize the release of funds to buy more antivirals.

“This is standard operating procedure,” Napolitano stressed, adding that similar declarations had been issued in the past to help states cope with flooding or hurricanes.

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The CDC confirmed 20 cases of swine flu in the United States and said all the patients had recovered and only one person had to be hospitalized. Officials said they were not testing air travelers from Mexico for the virus.

The CDC is preparing a “yellow card” for travelers explaining the flu symptoms and what precautions to take, Schuchat said. U.S. health officials are stressing frequent hand washing as the first line of defense against the virus.

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Tests so far show that the H1N1 component of the seasonal flu vaccine does not protect against the new H1N1 swine flu strain, Schuchat said. It could take several months to develop a vaccine for the new virus, she added.

The virus in the U.S. cases appeared to be the same strain as the one that has killed scores in Mexico, CDC acting Director Dr Richard Besser said, although it was not yet clear why it had not proven as deadly in the United States. Health officials from the United States and Canada were now in Mexico to try to answer this “critical question,” he said.

“We expect to see more cases of swine flu. As we continue to look for cases, we expect that we will find them,” Besser said.

Napolitano said the United States would release 25 percent of the 50 million anti-flu drugs from the strategic national stockpile. The Department of Defense has also bought 7 million courses of Tamiflu for defense personnel, she said.

Tamiflu, a pill made by Roche AG and Gilead Sciences Inc, and GlaxoSmithKline’s and Biota’s Relenza, an inhaled drug, can treat influenza if given quickly. They have been shown to work against this new flu strain.

Gibbs said Obama, who recently returned from a trip to Mexico, had shown no symptoms of the virus and had therefore not been tested.

Additional reporting by Kim Dixon, Donna Smith and Maggie Fox; editing by Eric Beech