Updated: Monday, 27 Apr 2009, 10:05 AM EDT
Published : Monday, 27 Apr 2009, 10:01 AM EDT
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama said Monday that the threat of spreading swine flu infections is a cause for concern but "not a cause for alarm" as the United States undertook close border monitoring to contain it.
"The Department of Health and Human Services has declared a Public Health Emergency as a precautionary tool to ensure that we have the resources we need at our disposal to respond quickly and effectively," Obama told a gathering of scientists, amid increasing worries worldwide about a possible pandemic.
The acting head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier Monday had said that people should be prepared for the problem to become more severe, and that it could involve "possibly deaths." Dr. Richard Besser said U.S. officials were questioning border visitors about how their health.
The quickening pace of developments in the United States in response to some 1,600 swine flu infections in neighboring Mexico was accompanied by a host of varying responses around the world. The European Union advised against nonessential travel to the United States and Mexico, China, Taiwan and Russia considered quarantines and several Asian countries scrutinized visitors arriving at their airports.
In the United States, a private school in South Carolina was closed Monday because of fears that young people returning from Mexico might have been infected.
"We are closely monitoring the emerging cases of swine flu in the United States," Obama said. "I'm getting regular updates on the situation from the responsible agencies, and the Department of Health and Human Services as well as the Centers for Disease Control will be offering regular updates to the American people so that they know what steps are being taken and what steps they may need to take."
"But one thing is clear: Our capacity to deal with a public health challenge of this sort rests heavily on the work of our scientific and medical community," the president said. "And this is one more example of why we cannot allow our nation to fall behind."
Besser described the new U.S. border initiative as "passive screening." He said authorities were "asking people about fever and illness, looking for people who are ill."
The U.S. declared a national health emergency in the midst of uncertainty about what the mounting sick count — 1,600 or more in Mexico alone — meant ongoing infections or merely resulted from health officials missing something that had been simmering for weeks or months. The declaration did, nevertheless, allow Washington to ship roughly 12 million doses of flu-fighting medications from a federal stockpile to states in case they eventually need them.
Besser traveled the morning news-show circuit Monday, telling interviewers the U.S. government was being "extremely aggressive" and saying he wouldn't personally recommend traveling to parts of Mexico where the new virus has taken hold. But he noted that the issue of a travel ban was under discussion and that nothing had been decided.
Besser said he was not reassured by the fact that so far in the U.S., no one has died from the disease.
"From what we understand in Mexico, I think people need to be ready for the idea that we could see more severe cases in this country and possibly deaths," he said. "That's something people have to be ready for and we're looking for that. So far, thankfully, we haven't seen that. But we're very concerned and that's why we're taking very aggressive measures."
Meanwhile, officials of Newberry Academy in South Carolina said Monday in a statement that seniors from the school were in Mexico earlier this month and some had flu like symptoms when they returned.
State Department of Health and Environmental Control spokesman Jim Beasley said test results on the students could come back as early as Monday afternoon. The agency has stepped up efforts to investigate all flu cases in South Carolina. There have been no confirmed swine flu cases in the state.
A New York City school where eight cases were confirmed will be closed Monday and Tuesday, and 14 schools in Texas, including a high school where two cases were confirmed, will be closed for at least the next week. Some schools in California and Ohio also were closing after students were found or suspected to have the flu.
In Mexico, the outbreak's epicenter, soldiers handed out 6 million face masks to help stop the spread of the novel virus that is suspected in up to 103 deaths. Most other countries are reporting only mild cases so far, with most of the sick already recovering. Cases have been confirmed in Canada — six — and the U.S. — 20.
Spain reported its first confirmed swine flu case on Monday and said another 17 people were suspected of having the disease. The European Union health commissioner advised Europeans to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico and the United States. Also, three New Zealanders recently returned from Mexico are suspected of having it.
Complicating response strategies was what World Health Organization spokesman Peter Cordingley described as major difficulty that experts were having in assessing precisely the nature of the threat.
"These are the early days. It's quite clear that there is a potential for this virus to become a pandemic and threaten globally," Cordingley said. He said it was spreading rapidly in Mexico and the southern United States.
Cordingley said "honestly don't know" the extent of the problem. He added: "We don't know enough yet about how this virus operates. More work needs to be done."
Multiple airlines, including American, United, Continental, US Airways, Mexicana and Air Canada, said they were waiving usual penalties for changing reservations for anyone traveling to, from, or through Mexico, but have not canceled flights.
The World Bank pledged to send Mexico $25 million in loans for immediate aid and $180 million in long-term assistance to address the outbreak, plus advice on how other nations have dealt with similar crises. Mexico officials say the flu strain may have sickened 1,614 people since April 13 but laboratory testing to confirm that and how many truly died from it — at least 22 so far out of the 103 suspected deaths — is taking time.
Worldwide, attention focused sharply on travelers.
"It was acquired in Mexico, brought home and spread," Nova Scotia's chief public health officer, Dr. Robert Strang, said of Canada's first confirmed cases.
Besser said that while the U.S. hasn't advised against travel to Mexico, it has urged people to take precautions, such as frequent hand-washing while there.
Associated Press writers Mark Stevenson and Olga R. Rodriguez in Mexico City; Frank Jordans in Geneva; Mike Stobbe in Atlanta; and Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.
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