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VOL. 124 | NO. 82 | Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Health Officials Respond To Swine Flu Fears

By Tom Wilemon

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Officials at the county, state, national and global levels continued putting response plans into action Monday as the World Health Organization considered an unprecedented pandemic alert level because of swine flu.

The number of confirmed cases in the United States doubled on Monday, but none was reported in Tennessee.

“This is extremely fluid,” said Yvonne Madlock, the director of the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department. “Things are changing quickly and rapidly. As we speak today at 12:30 p.m., there are no reported cases in Tennessee or in Shelby County.

“But we are vigilant, and we are activating and enhancing all of our surveillance systems that allow us to monitor to determine what the level of seasonal influenza in our community is and whether or not – or if – cases of swine flu emerge in the Shelby County region.”

The state has antiviral drugs readily available if needed, said Shelley Walker, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Health. Each state has an allotment of the medications as part of the Strategic National Stockpile, she said.

“Tennessee has been actively planning for a pandemic flu response for some time,” Walker said. “State, local and federal officials are all working together on the response. They have been working all weekend and are prepared to help Tennesseans as best we can.”

On the lookout

The local health department approved its Pandemic Influenza Response Plan two years ago. The plan calls for actions in response to the pandemic alert level as set by the WHO.

Madlock said this plan was developed in response to the threat of avian flu.

“We are using that plan as a template and there are some basic assumptions that are the same, regardless of which strain of influenza one is dealing with,” she said. “We are refreshing ourselves on that plan and preparing ourselves and our community to be able to implement as much of that plan as ultimately turns out to be necessary.”

The number of confirmed cases in the United States went from 20 to 40 as of Monday, according to the WHO. No deaths were reported.

Officials at the agency were considering increasing the level 3 alert as evidence mounted that the virus, which started in Mexico, had spread to more countries. The alert levels are on a 1-to-6 scale.

“We understand that people are concerned,” Walker said. “Our advice, at this point, is the same that we would give for any type of flu or flu-like illness. Certainly, anyone who becomes sick should stay home. If you don’t feel well, stay home.

“If you feel like you need to get medical attention, certainly see your health care provider. Frequent hand washing is an all purpose, preventive health measure, which is something we’re emphasizing now. If you cough or sneeze, you want to cover that with your sleeve or a tissue. Those are some really good, common-sense preventive health measures that we’re reminding people about.”

Madlock said people shoud practice “good respiratory etriquette.”

“That’s a fancy word for saying cover your mouth when you sneeze and cough with something you can throw away like a tissue or into the sleeve of your arm where you’re not going to be in contact with somebody else.”

Masked and ready

The acting head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Richard Besser, said Americans should prepare for swine flu infections to become more severe and possibly lead to deaths.

U.S. customs officials have begun checking people entering U.S. territory. Officers at airports, seaports and border crossings are watching for signs of illness, said Customs and Border Protection spokesman Lloyd Easterling.

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 had not canceled flights.

In Mexico, the military has handed out face masks. A properly fitted disposable respirator with the grade of N-95 or higher is the most effective mask to protect from airborne illnesses, according to the CDC.

Kimberly-Clark Corp. is one of the primary manufacturers of the masks.

“Kimberly-Clark is actively monitoring the situation and is coordinating closely with its customers to supply health care products to identified areas of need,” said Lance Latham of Kimberly-Clark corporate communications.

The WHO pandemic alert level of three is for when there are predominantly animal infections with few human infections. Level four is for sustained human to human transmission. Levels five and six are for when there is widespread human infection.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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