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Swine flu scare hits close to home

Possible swine-flu cases are under investigation in Philadelphia and Allegheny County, and state officials say it is inevitable that the outbreak, which has claimed more than 150 lives in Mexico, soon will be confirmed in Pennsylvania.

The rapidly spreading virus, which originated in pigs, is believed to have killed one person in California and has been confirmed in 68 people in at least six states.

In light of the outbreak, Pittsburgh businesses have curtailed travel to Mexico.

“The number of cases continues to grow daily, and it is likely that we will eventually see confirmed cases in the commonwealth,” said Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Everette James, noting confirmed cases in neighboring Ohio and New York, and five probable cases identified in New Jersey.

The Allegheny County Health Department is awaiting test results on a person who recently returned from Mexico with a fever and flu-like symptoms. A “rapid test,” which is not 100 percent reliable, showed the person, whom officials would not identify, likely has influenza. That does not mean the person has swine flu, however, officials said.

The county might have to wait several days for the results because only one state laboratory, about 30 miles outside Philadelphia, can perform “rapid tests.” The county’s $4 million sophisticated laboratory could perform such testing, but its opening has been delayed more than a year because of ventilation problems.

“The lab is not open for business, unfortunately, and we don’t know when it will be,” said spokesman Guillermo Cole.

Several corporations, meanwhile, have sent letters to employees informing them about swine flu and postponing travel to Mexico.

“We take the health and well-being of our employees seriously, and we’re urging people to take proper precautions regarding swine flu,” said Vaughn Gilbert, spokesman for Westinghouse Electric Co., headquartered in Monroeville.

The company sent letters about swine flu to its 11,500 employees.

Alcoa, Bayer Corp., U.S. Steel and PPG Industries issued similar warnings, urging employees to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel guidelines, which recommend that people avoid nonessential travel to Mexico.

None of the companies suspects that any employees have swine flu.

Despite the corporations’ caginess, few vacation travelers have canceled planned trips to Mexico so far, said Paul Busang, president of Gulliver’s Travels in Bloomfield. Some are wondering whether Caribbean cruises they booked would cancel shore excursions in Mexico, which Busang said would be within the cruise companies’ rights.

Busang said his agency is making travel arrangements for a large university group scheduled to depart May 6 to Mexico City for a four-week program. He wouldn’t identify the university.

“I’m sure there are people thinking hard about it … lawyers, teachers, administrators,” Busang said.

Pittsburgh Marathon officials will watch for swine-flu symptoms among runners Sunday, when nearly 10,000 people are expected to race — many from out of town. Thousands more are expected to line the streets to watch and cheer participants.

“Even if there was someone with swine flu and you came into the medical tent, we’d be wearing gloves. If you’re coughing all over us, we’d put a mask on,” said Dr. Ronald N. Roth, professor of emergency medicine at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who is coordinating medical efforts for the marathon.

He doesn’t know whether the marathon could be a vulnerable venue for transmission of swine flu.

“Hopefully, we won’t be the test,” Roth said.

School districts are reviewing pandemic plans in case the outbreak should become more serious.

The Derry Area School District sent letters home to parents Monday, informing them that a small group of students traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico during spring break. The students are being monitored for flu symptoms.

Swine-flu symptoms are the same as those for seasonal flu — fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headaches, chills and fatigue.

The unusual aspect is that flu symptoms are occurring now, when flu season is coming to a close. The CDC recommends that anyone with flu-like symptoms should call a doctor.

If caught within the first 48 hours, swine flu can be treated with prescription medications Tamiflu or Relenza. The federal government has stockpiles of the antivirals and is distributing them to certain states. Pennsylvania will get 600,000, 10-day courses of the medication to supplement the 1.2 million stockpiled.

The best prevention that people can take to avoid swine flu is to practice usual hygiene, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious diseases physician at UPMC’s Center for Biosecurity in Baltimore.

“That means washing hands, covering their mouth when coughing or sneezing, staying home if you’re sick,” he said. “If you’re suspicious that you’ve been around somebody with swine flu because of travel history, you should be consulting with your doctor. And keep up-to-date on where cases are and what the CDC is recommending.”

Additional Information:

Frequently asked questions

Q. How does swine flu spread?

A. The virus is spread through human contact, though the exact method of transmission — such as coughing, sneezing or touching something infected by a flu sufferer — is unknown. Infected people can infect others one day before symptoms appear and up to seven days after becoming sick.

Q. How long can the swine-flu virus live outside the body?

A. Some viruses live for up to two hours on surfaces, such as tables or doorknobs, but officials do not know how long the swine flu virus can live.

Q. Can I get swine flu from eating or preparing pork?

A. No. Swine flu is not spread by eating food. Eating properly prepared and cooked pork is safe.

Q. Why is the swine flu outbreak more severe in Mexico?

A. Officials do not know, but hypotheses include that the virus mutated to a less-deadly form in the United States; that people infected in Mexico have more susceptible immune systems; or that those sickened waited longer for treatment and that hospitals didn’t treat them with antivirals quickly.

Q. Is there a vaccine?

A. Not yet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is developing a ‘seed stock’ of the virus to create a vaccine. It could be at least six months before a vaccine is distributed.

Q. How many deaths has swine flu caused, compared with seasonal flu?

A. Swine flu is suspected to have caused one death in California. Each year, about 36,000 people die in the United States from flu-related causes.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pennsylvania Department of Health, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Center for Biosecurity


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