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Maine confirms 3 cases of swine flu

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Maine confirms 3 cases of swine flu

BATH — Gov. John Baldacci said Wednesday that there are three confirmed cases of swine flu in Maine. Three adults are infected; two in Kennebec County and one in York County.

"The people are at home and are recovering," Baldacci said in an Augusta press conference joined via telephone by reporters throughout the state. "They are not hospitalized. So far they are the only confirmed cases of the flu in Maine, but it's probable that there will be more."

Acknowledging that people are concerned, the governor – who was joined by Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Dora Mills, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Brenda Harvey and Education Commissioner Susan Gendron – stressed the importance of taking steps to slow the spread of the flu. He said frequent washing of hands, covering mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing and staying home when sick, as well as staying informed, are key courses of preventive action.

"Last week, when information on the possible spread of the new flu became known, the Maine CDC began an aggressive response plan," Baldacci said. "We've had plans in place, and they've already been activated. We immediately increased our ability to identify and track the illness, and began preparing action."

"In other states, schools have been closed," the governor continued. "If the circumstances warrant it, we're prepared to take similar action here. We remain hopeful that the flu will remain relatively mild, but we're taking steps to mitigate the spread and take care of the folks who get sick."

While there is no vaccine for this strain of the flu, antiviral drugs can slow the spread of the disease, the governor said. Baldacci said Maine will receive doses of antiviral drugs from the national stockpile on Sunday, and that "in addition, we took steps today to acquire an additional 500,000 treatment courses of antiviral that should be sufficient to treat the flu in Maine."

The public can call 888-257-0990 for more information on the illness, the state officials said. Information can also be found on the Maine CDC Web site, www.mainepublichealth.gov.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov) reported that as of late morning Wednesday, prior to Baldacci's press conference, there were 91 human cases of swine flu infection in the U.S. One death, that of a 23-month-old child reportedly from Mexico, had occurred in Texas.

According to the World Health Organization, as of Wednesday Mexico had reported 26 confirmed cases of human infection by swine flu, including seven deaths. Canada reported six confirmed cases, New Zealand three, and the United Kingdom, Spain and Israel each two.

As of Wednesday about three dozen samples of suspected swine flu had been tested in Maine, with several more tests planned, according to the Maine CDC.

With this new strain of flu quickly spreading, regional health authorities like Dr. Hugh Tilson, the Sagadahoc County health officer, are stepping up the public awareness and disease prevention process even more.

"We are prepared for this variation, even though it's a different influenza than the one we were prepared for," Tilson said. "But what we were prepared for was the possibility of the threat of the pandemic, and this virus bringsthat along. So we are prepared."

Tilson helped establish the Sagadahoc County Board of Health, a group of citizen volunteers based in Bath.

"Our job at this point is panic control," Tilson said. "That is to say, there's every reason not to panic. First, because we are prepared, and second because there is little evidence at this point of reason for major public concern. The concern needs to be on the part of the public health authorities who need to mobilize now to be sure that we are protected, and that's what we're doing."

Swine flu, or H1N1 influenza, is the result of viruses that regularly cause outbreaks in pigs, according to Sagadahoc EMA Director Misty Green. While people do not normally catch swine flu, human infections do occur. The latest outbreak is apparently spreading from person to person.

Tilson said it is not yet clear how seriously widespread swine flu could be in the U.S.

"It was clearly serious in Mexico," he said, adding that the first stage in all preparedness activity includes watchful waiting, high vigilance, reminding physicians about technical details concerning screening and reporting, "and then being prepared to launch the next phase, should it become necessary."

Flu pandemics hit the U.S. in 1918, 1957 and 1968, according to Green. Tilson pointed out that a threat of swine flu in 1976 led to a national immunization campaign. "There was actually a vaccine against swine flu and we tried to get it out nationwide, but fortunately that outbreak didn't proceed," he said.

There is currently no vaccine for this strain of swine flu, Tilson said, explaining that vaccine development technology requires six months of lead time from identification of the virus to the time that vaccines are generally available for population infection control.

The term "pandemic" refers to a virus spreading across the world and infecting many people in many different settings, spreading from person to person, Tilson said.

"At this point, in the United States, we don't even know whether it will spread to the persons who are in contact with these cases," he added. "So exactly how infectious this agent is and what its pandemic potential is has yet to be determined."

The news from Mexico, though, "is very sobering and warns us that it's possible," Tilson said.

Green pointed out that experts in the past have predicted that if a severe pandemic flu outbreak were to occur, there could be up to 1.9 million deaths in the U.S, while 9.9 million Americans could require hospitalization and an economic recession would result, causing losses of more than $680 billion to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.

"We need to see how badly it spreads and of course how severe it is," Tilson said. "It can spread widely but still not be very severe. So we need to see the extent and severity of the spread before we take even the next step toward pandemic preparedness."

Tilson pointed out that planning for a potential pandemic has been years in the making.

"What's assuring is that we've been doing enough pandemic planning so we have antivirals in our strategic national stockpile," he said. "We have physicians educated about their use, and if we need to use them, we will, and we'll know what to do."

The Sagadahoc County Board of Health will next meet on the third floor of the Sagadahoc County Courthouse in Bath from 8:30-10:30 a.m. on Friday, May 8. The meeting is open to the public, and the flu outbreak will be on that morning's agenda.

To request a pocket guide on preparing for the potential pandemic flu, e-mail sagema@sagcounty.com and one will be mailed to you.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.