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Update: Health, public safety officials urge swine flu calm

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Update: Health, public safety officials urge swine flu calm

PORTLAND — A group of regional public health officials, emergency responders and doctors said Tuesday afternoon that they are ready for any massive outbreak of the swine flu that has killed nearly 150 people in Mexico and sickened dozens in the U.S. and other countries.

At a press conference at Portland City Hall, the officials sought to ease anxiety and avoid panic by local residents. At least one family in Portland did not send their child to school on Tuesday out of fear the child would come into contact with someone who has the virus.

There have been 64 cases of swine flu confirmed in the United States. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday that a 23-month-old child died of the swine flu in Texas, the first swine flu death reported outside of Mexico.

The Maine CDC said about three dozen samples of suspected swine flu had been tested as of Wednesday and several more tests were planned. There are still no confirmed cases of swine flu in Maine, the CDC said.

Anne Sites, of Maine's Center for Disease Control, said in a telephone interview said that doctors are being encouraged to submit tests for people who show traditional flu symptoms if the patients have traveled within the last seven to 10 days to areas where cases of swine flu have been confirmed. 

Portland Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne said at the press conference Tuesday that regional medical officials and emergency responders have been planning their response to a pandemic for the last seven years and stand ready to implement those plans.

"We are organized and prepared should this outbreak grow in size and in scope," LaMontagne said. "Certainly it is our hope that we will not need to utilize these plans, but if we need to the citizens of greater Portland should rest assured that we are ready." 

Portland Public Health Director Julie Sullivan said residents could minimize their chances of contracting swine flu simply by washing their hands with soap and warm water, using alcohol-based cleaners, sneezing and coughing into their elbows and avoiding touching their eyes or mouths. 

Dr. Stephen Sears, an infectious disease specialist at Mercy Hospital, said the swine flu is unique in that it possesses both swine and avian genetic traits. About two to three cases of swine flu, which can be passed from person to pig, pig to person and person to person, are diagnosed annually in the United States.

Kerry Frost, medical director of the Portland Public Health Division, said symptoms of swine flu are the same as the regular flu. They include fever, sore throat, coughs, body aches, chills and fatigue. Sullivan said people who experience these symptoms should stay home from work and/or school and call their doctors for additional information. Healthy people should avoid close contact with those who are ill and wear face-masks as a precaution. 

Meanwhile, anyone who has recently traveled to areas of the world where swine flu has been confirmed should be extra vigilant about monitoring their health for at least a week. These areas include Mexico, Southern California, southern Texas and any other area added by the  U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Dr. Douglas Salvador, associate chief medical officer at Maine Medical Center, said the swine flu is susceptible to anti-viral treatments. However, like all flu strains, he said, it could mutate.

Salvador conjectured that early cases of swine flu were deadly in Mexico because only the most severe cases were diagnosed. While early reports suggest swine flu produced symptoms unlike the regular flu, that does not appear to be the case now, he said.   

South Portland Fire Chief Kevin Guimond said emergency responders are working closely with the private sector to respond to any wide outbreaks. Emergency dispatchers are also asking sick callers a few extra questions to see if they are potentially at risk. Also, masks may be placed on sick patients while they are being transported to hospitals. 

"This team is really working hard to stay ahead of this," Guimond said.

Meanwhile, Sullivan said employers should talk with their employees about the swine flu and how each person can protect themselves. The Portland Public Health Division has posted a flier and links on its Web site that employers can download and display in their businesses and restrooms.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net