Swine Flu Escalates to National Public Health Emergency

Swine flu has "pandemic potential," according to World Health Organization director general.

by / April 27, 2009

The deaths of up to 103 people in Mexico deemed likely linked to the swine flu and the appearance of it in the United States has got the world thinking about pandemics. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), said the swine flu virus has "pandemic potential," reported The Washington Post.

PandemicFlu.gov defines a pandemic flu as a virulent human flu that causes a global outbreak of serious illness. Because there's little natural immunity, the disease can spread easily from person to person.

The WHO said Monday that there are 40 confirmed swine flu cases in the United States, but there haven't been any deaths. In Mexico, 26 of 103 deaths were confirmed to be swine flu related and the remaining 77 deaths are said to likely have been caused by it.

"I'd suggest emergency managers dust off the pandemic plans they wrote three years ago," commented Valerie Lucus, emergency and business continuity manager of the University of California at Davis, by e-mail. "This is going to be as much a public anxiety crisis -- especially now -- as it is a health-care issue. It could easily become a business continuity/continuity of operations exercise based on excessive absenteeism." Excessive absenteeism is when there aren't enough people coming to work or an organization to keep the systems and processes running.

On Sunday the number of swine flu cases in the United States rose to 20, prompting the nation to declare a public health emergency. "This is standard operating procedure and allows us to free up federal, state and local agencies and their resources for prevention and mitigation; it allows us to use medication and diagnostic tests that we might not otherwise be able to use, particularly on very young children; and it releases funds for the acquisition of additional anti-virals," said Janet Napolitano, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in a press briefing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are seven cases of swine flu in California, two in Kansas, 28 in New York, one in Ohio and two in Texas. There are ongoing investigations to determine the infection's source.

Swine Flu Surveillance

The WHO held an emergency meeting on Saturday for its Emergency Committee to discuss the swine flu -- strain A(H1N1) -- and assess the situation. The committee identified gaps in information about the clinical features, epidemiology, virology of reported cases and the appropriate responses, according to the WHO's  Web site. The committee agreed that the swine flu constitutes a public health emergency of international concern. It said one current public health measure is for all countries to "intensify surveillance for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia."

The CDC issued actions citizens can take to stay healthy. Emergency managers should educate the public to take the following actions to reduce the virus's spread:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing and throw the tissue away after use.
  • Wash hands with soap and water often, especially if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • If you are sick, you should stay home from school or work and avoid contact with others.

Response Efforts

In a press briefing released Sunday, CDC Acting Director Richard Besser commended New York City and Texas for not allowing infected children to attend school today. "Those are very smart public health decisions," he said. "If there are other communities where we saw cases in a school, we would be recommending that they take those actions as well."

California has taken several steps to respond to the swine flu, including:

  • activating the Joint Emergency Operations Center of the Department of Public Health, in coordination with the California Emergency Management Agency;
  • expanding public health laboratory testing of potential flu specimens;
  • requesting additional deployment of CDC influenza experts to Southern California counties, as well as state public health staff, to assist local health departments; and
  • expanding public health laboratory testing of potential flu specimens.

The CDC will be releasing community guidance for public health officials in the near future.


Elaine Rundle Staff Writer