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Swine Flu Spreads To Canada, 5 U.S. States

JACKI LYDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Federal officials say the public should brace for more bad news about swine flu in the coming days. At a White House briefing today, Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said experts are still finding new cases in the U.S. and Mexico.

Dr. RICHARD BESSER (Acting Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): We do think that this will continue to spread, but we are taking aggressive actions to minimize the impact on people's health.

LYDEN: So far, there are 20 confirmed cases in the U.S., spread across five states: California, Texas, Kansas, Ohio and New York. In Mexico, there are 20 confirmed deaths from swine flu, and authorities are investigating at least 60 others. And six cases were confirmed today in Canada.

Joining us now to talk about these outbreaks is NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton.

Hi, Jon.

JON HAMILTON: Hi.

LYDEN: The American government seems to be trying really hard to make sure that people are getting a consistent message.

HAMILTON: Yes. Certainly, during the White House briefing today, they were really trying hard to be on message, to be consistent. And one of the things they did was they announced that Janet Napolitano, who is in charge of Homeland Security, is also going to be in charge of dealing with this outbreak. So, everybody else is going to be reporting to her.

And, you know, she sort of laid things out. You had Richard Besser from the CDC who laid things out. And when they had a press conference later at the CDC, you were hearing almost exactly the same phrases. I think a lot of this probably goes back a few years to anthrax when there was a terrible problem of different information coming out of different agencies, and they're trying really hard not to repeat that.

LYDEN: It is also apparent, Jon, isn't it, that there's still so much they don't know. Why is that?

HAMILTON: Well, there are a lot of holes in the data. I mean, for instance, we know that there are 20 people who died in Mexico. They were all confirmed to have had the virus in their bodies. But what you don't know is how many people there actually got sick, right? And you know about - something about how many people showed in the hospital. But until you know - what if there were thousands of people who got sick and only 20 died? Well, then it wouldn't be as serious as if, you know, there had only been 100, and 20 died.

LYDEN: Right. Even so, the federal government announced a public health emergency today, which does sound very grave.

HAMILTON: It sounds scary, there's no question about that. And, in fact, at the White House press conference today, Janet Napolitano of Homeland Security went through great pains to explain why it's really not as scary as it sounds. Here's what she said.

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (United States Department of Homeland Security): It's similar to what we do, for example, when a hurricane may be approaching a site. Really, that's what we're doing right now, the government. We're leaning forward, we're preparing in an environment where we really don't know ultimately what the size or seriousness of this outbreak is going to be.

LYDEN: So, that's what Napolitano had to say. What about another question that came up at that briefing? Why are there so many deaths in Mexico, yet none here in the U.S.? Do we know?

HAMILTON: Well, this is a question that everybody is asking today. Because if there were some kind of a pattern, then you'd be looking for some kind or there must be some difference, maybe the virus has attenuated in the U.S. There's all kinds of things you could speculate. But the fact is - and they went through great pains to say this today - was we really don't know. And part of the reason you don't know is because with only 20 cases in the U.S., that's just not enough to know whether it's a really dangerous virus or not.

LYDEN: What are people supposed to do? There was really a consistency in the message on a couple of things.

HAMILTON: Yeah, the consistent message was wash your hands; wash your hands; wash your hands. And actually, Richard Besser went on to mention a few other things that are a good idea to do. Here's what he said.

Dr. BESSER: If you're sick, it's very important that people stay at home. If your children are sick, have a fever and flu-like illness, they shouldn't go to school. And if you're ill, you shouldn't get on an airplane or another public transport to travel.

LYDEN: Kind of common sense. What about traveling to Mexico? That came up too.

HAMILTON: Well, you know, it's interesting. And this is where, I think, the government is having to do a balance between making sure people are paying attention, but not wanting to be alarmist or do things that completely shut down another country's economy, right?

So, in fact, there is no restriction on traveling to Mexico. All they're saying is people who are going there should be aware and should look for symptoms.

LYDEN: Thanks very much. NPR's science correspondent Jon Hamilton.

Thanks for coming in.

HAMILTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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