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Vermonters prepare for possible spread of swine flu

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Posted on April 30, 2009 |
By Kathryn Flagg



ADDISON COUNTY — As reported cases of the swine influenza cropped up around the country, Vermont remained unaffected at midweek by the airborne, contagious disease that reached epidemic proportions in Mexico. Still, local and state officials said they were on the lookout for the disease should it spread, and one local high school stepped up precautions after a student trip returned from south of the border last week.

The Vermont Department of Health urged individuals who are sick to stay home from work or school. Acting State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said that simple actions like frequent hand washing and covering one’s mouth when coughing or sneezing will prevent people from getting sick or spreading an illness they might already have.

The Vermont Department of Health reported this week that illness caused by a new strain of swine flu in humans, known as the H1N1 virus, has been relatively mild so far when compared to the severe illness reported in Mexico, where the outbreak originated.

LOCAL RESPONSE

At Middlebury Union High School, a student trip to Mexico during last week’s spring break prompted additional attention to reports of the swine flu. MUHS Principal Bill Lawson said the 15 students on the trip didn’t observe any signs of the disease while abroad. Nevertheless, he consulted local doctors Morris Earle and Breena Holmes for advice on how to handle the threat.

Following the physicians’ recommendations, the school requested that students showing any symptoms of a flu-like illness obtain their doctor’s consent before returning to school, and one student was tested for the swine flu.

The test results had not come back when the paper went to press on Wednesday.

MUHS Spanish teacher Debbie Koretz, who was head chaperone for the cultural tour for advanced Spanish language students, said that the trip went well and that she and the students didn’t hear anything about the spreading influenza until they returned to the United States.

“I did not hear any of this until we got back. I literally didn’t know anything,” she said. “As far as I know, everybody’s healthy.”

Porter Medical Center spokesman Ron Hallman said the Middlebury hospital is keeping an eye on the outbreak and reminding its staff to exercise usual hygiene practices, like proper hand-washing techniques.

At Middlebury College, Acting Dean of the College Gus Jordan issued similar warnings in an e-mail that went out to all students, faculty and staff. Jordan also warned students to look out for the recent onset of symptoms that could include nasal congestion, coughing, a sore throat, a fever or feverishness, or vomiting and diarrhea.

The e-mail advised students to update their personal “Pandemic Plans,” which the college instated last year as a way to plan for a potential school closing.

Jordan also warned students who are currently out of the United States to monitor public health announcements in their country of residence. Two students at the college are studying this semester at Middlebury schools abroad in Mexico.

SWINE FLU SPREADS

By Wednesday morning, the reported number of worldwide deaths attributed to the swine flu climbed to 159, all except one of which occurred in Mexico. Mexican officials reported late Tuesday, the country had seen roughly 2,500 suspected cases of the swine flu.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 91 cases of the flu, spread out between 10 states, had been confirmed.

In the first fatality to occur in the United States, a Mexican toddler died Wednesday in Texas.

Meanwhile, cases of the flu have also been reported in countries around the world, including Spain, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Germany and Canada.

In response to the intensifying outbreak, the World Health Organization on Monday raised the worldwide pandemic alert level to Phase 4, which is characterized by confirmed person-to-person spread of a new influenza virus able to cause “community-level” outbreaks.

The CDC reported that the heightened pandemic alert also signals that the likelihood of a pandemic has increased.

Early this week, countries responded to reports of the spreading disease with tightened border security. Japan said Tuesday that it would no longer allow Mexican travelers to obtain a visa upon arrival. Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Russia all announced that travelers suspected of having the flu will be quarantined.

Though international health experts said the flu cannot be transmitted from pigs or from eating properly handled pork, Indonesia on Monday banned all pork products coming from Canada, the United States and Mexico.

The United States cautioned travelers against any nonessential travel to Mexico, and British authorities similarly warned against unnecessary trips to the country and advised British citizens in Mexico to consider leaving.

In Vermont, the Department of Health also reported that individuals cannot contract swine flu from eating pork or pork products, and that no special precautions are recommended for anyone who owns a pig or is routinely exposed to the animals.

This outbreak of swine flu is uncommon, because swine flu viruses do not typically infect humans. The Vermont Department of Health said that only 12 such cases have been reported worldwide in the last four years.

Symptoms are similar to those of other strains of influenza, and can be difficult to distinguish from respiratory illnesses. Typically one to four days elapse between the time a person is infected and the onset of symptoms.

So far, Kelso said, it appears that the swine flu is susceptible to antiviral medications like Tamiflu and Relenza, and the Obama administration earlier this week released 12.5 million of the nation’s stockpile of 50 million courses of Tamiflu. The Pentagon has readied 7 million courses for military personnel.

Vermont already has a supply of the drugs on hand, but state health officials said that Vermont should receive an additional shipment of the drug in a few days.

But health officials warned that antiviral drugs aren’t a cure-all for the flu.

“Antivirals don’t work the same way as antibiotics,” said Kelso, the epidemiologist. “Antivirals aren’t a cure. They can shorten the duration of illness and decrease the severity of illness, but in some cases they don’t make a dramatic difference for people.”


The best defense against swine flu

•  Wash your hands often and well.

•  Use alcohol-based hand wipes and gel sanitizers if soap and water are not available.

•  Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.

•  Cough or sneeze into a tissue and then throw it away.

•  Stay home from work or school and away from others if you are sick.

•  If you need medical attention, call your health care provider first.

— Vermont Department of Health

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