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Obama: Schools with infections may need to close

April 28, 2009
Associated Press

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama suggested Wednesday that school closings may be necessary, in an escalating global health emergency that claimed the first death in the United States and swept Germany onto the roster of afflicted nations. Obama said local educators across America should consider shuttering schools if conditions worsen.

Giving an update on a raging health menace that has dominated public officials' time and caused universal anxiety, Obama said, "Every American should know that the federal government is prepared to do whatever is necessary to control this virus."

He said he wanted to extend "my thoughts and prayers" to the family of a 23-month-old Texas boy who died, representing the first confirmed U.S. fatality in addition to more than five dozen infections.

"This is obviously a serious situation" and "we are closely and continuously monitoring" it, Obama said.

The president said it is the recommendation of public health officials that authorities at schools with confirmed or suspected cases of swine flu "should strongly consider temporarily closing so that we can be as safe as possible."

"If the situation becomes more serious and we have to take more extensive steps, then parents should also think about contingencies if schools in their areas do temporarily shut down, figuring out and planning what their child care situation would be," Obama advised.

Just sending children from schools to day care centers in infected areas "is not a good solution," he said.

Obama said the federal government is "prepared to do whatever is necessary to control the impact of this virus." He noted his request for $1.5 billion in emergency funding to ensure adequate supplies of vaccines.

The government needs local agencies to help by looking out for any suspected flu cases, the president said.

And he advised individuals to take their own precautions ï申 washing hands, staying home if they are sick, and keeping sick kids home.

The world has no vaccine to prevent infection but U.S. health officials aim to have a key ingredient for one ready in early May, the big step that vaccine manufacturers are awaiting. But even if the World Health Organization ordered up emergency vaccine supplies ï申 and that decision hasn't been made yet ï申 it would take at least two more months to produce the initial shots needed for human safety testing.

"We're working together at 100 miles an hour to get material that will be useful," Dr. Jesse Goodman, who oversees the Food and Drug Administration's swine flu work, told The Associated Press.

And the U.S. is shipping to states not only enough anti-flu medication for 11 million people, but also masks, hospital supplies and flu test kits.

Dr. Richard Besser, acting head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was asked Wednesday why the problem seems so much more severe in Mexico than in the United States.

He replied that U.S. officials "have teams on the ground, a tri-national team in Mexico, working with Canada and Mexico, to try and understand those differences, because they can be helpful as we plan and implement our control strategies."

Cuba and Argentina banned flights to Mexico, where swine flu is suspected of killing more than 150 people and sickening well over 2,000. In a bit of good news, Mexico's health secretary, Jose Cordova, late Tuesday called the death toll there "more or less stable."

Mexico City, one of the world's largest cities, has taken drastic steps to curb the virus' spread, starting with shutting down schools and on Tuesday expanding closures to gyms and swimming pools and even telling restaurants to limit service to takeout. People who venture out tend to wear masks in hopes of protection.

The number of confirmed swine flu cases in the United States included 45 in New York, 11 in California, six in Texas, two in Kansas and one each in Indiana and Ohio, but cities and states suspected more. In New York, the city's health commissioner said "many hundreds" of schoolchildren were ill at a school where some students had confirmed cases.

But only in Mexico so far are there confirmed deaths, and scientists remain baffled as to why.

The WHO argues against closing borders to stem the spread, and the U.S. ï申 although checking arriving travelers for the ill who may need care ï申 agrees it's too late for that tactic.

Authorities sought to keep the crisis in context: Flu deaths are common around the world. In the U.S. alone, the CDC says about 36,000 people a year die of flu-related causes. Still, the CDC calls the new strain a combination of pig, bird and human viruses for which people may have limited natural immunity.

Hence the need for a vaccine. Using samples of the flu taken from people who fell ill in Mexico and the U.S., scientists are engineering a strain that could trigger the immune system without causing illness. The hope is to get that ingredient ï申 called a "reference strain" in vaccine jargon ï申 to manufacturers around the second week of May, so they can begin their own laborious production work, said CDC's Dr. Ruben Donis, who is leading that effort.

Vaccine manufacturers are just beginning production for next winter's regular influenza vaccine, which protects against three human flu strains. The WHO wants them to stay with that course for now ï申 it won't call for mass production of a swine flu vaccine unless the outbreak worsens globally. But sometimes new flu strains pop up briefly at the end of one flu season and go away only to re-emerge the next fall, and at the very least there should be a vaccine in time for next winter's flu season, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health's infectious diseases chief, said Tuesday.

"Right now it's moving very rapidly," he said of the vaccine development.

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