Local disease specialist discusses swine flu

Swine flu fears close schools in NY, Texas, Calif.
April 27, 2009 6:11:06 AM PDT
The U.S. declared a public health emergency Sunday to deal with the emerging new swine flu, much like the government does to prepare for approaching hurricanes.

Local infectious disease specialist, Dr. Ronald Goren, says that doesn't mean people need to panic.

"We're learning more everyday. I personally am not panicking. I'm not too worried about it. I think everybody is much more prepared now than they would have been 10 years ago if something like this happened," Dr. Green said.

While world health officials caution a pandemic outbreak, Dr. Goren says we're better prepared than ever to deal with swine flu, especially here in the United States. He says for years, doctors and health officials have been preparing for a large scale outbreak of Bird flu.

"There is a lot of medication that hasn't been available before. The medicines we have, the Tamiflu and the Relenza, are clearly useful in this flu and they'll be available should people get sick," Dr. Green said.

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Cleaning crews spent the day scrubbing down every desk, chair and classroom at a New York City high school. Infected students wore surgical masks as they recovered in their beds. Anxious parents woke their children at night to check their temperature.

The same strain of swine flu that was suspected in the deaths of 86 people in Mexico has infected at least eight students at a large Roman Catholic high school in Queens, and possibly more than 100.

About a dozen students from St. Francis Preparatory school apparently brought back the virus after spending a week in Cancun for spring break. All of the cases were mild.

Swine flu has been confirmed in at least 20 people in the U.S., also in Kansas, California, Texas and Ohio. Many of the victims had recently visited Mexico. The federal government declared a public health emergency to respond to the outbreak.

Officials said several schools, including St. Francis, would be closed for days. In California, St. Mel's Catholic School was closed until at least Thursday while health officials determine if a seventh grader has a flu linked to the outbreak. Near San Antonio, a high school in Cibolo was closed for at least the next week after two students caught the virus.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Sunday that many New York victims are recovering, but said that some family members of students also had flu symptoms, "suggesting it is spreading person to person." Gov. David Paterson said 1,500 treatment courses of the antiviral Tamiflu had been sent to New York City; it wasn't immediately clear if hospitals were using the doses.

Infectious-disease specialists, epidemiologists and disaster preparedness workers have been dispatched to New York to monitor and respond to possible flu cases.

St. Francis is the largest private Catholic high school in the nation, with 2,700 students. The school canceled classes on Monday and Tuesday in response to the outbreak.

Brother Leonard Conway, principal of St. Francis, said cleaning crews sanitized the school during the weekend, using heavy-duty disinfectant to cleanse desks, chairs, labs, offices and classrooms. Outside the school, reporters from around the world camped out.

School officials realized something was wrong Thursday when about 75 students showed up at the nurse's office complaining of fevers, upset stomachs and achy bones. The overwhelmed nurse's office had to make students wait on chairs in the hallway for care.

The school notified the city Health Department, and more students became sick Friday. Many were taken to a nearby hospital, but none had to be admitted.

Students began falling ill after a group of friends returned April 19 from Mexico, where they spent six days lounging around the beach and pool during the day and hanging out in Cancun at night. Esti Lamonaca, an 18-year-old senior who made the Cancun trip, could hardly speak Sunday because her voice was so hoarse. She spent several days battling a fever of nearly 103 and was wearing a mask to prevent the virus from spreading.

"I haven't been out of my house since Wednesday and am just hoping to make a full recovery soon," Lamonaca said. "I am glad school is closed because it supposedly is very contagious and I don't want this to spread like it has in Mexico."

In Ohio, a 9-year-old boy was infected with the same strain suspected of killing dozens in Mexico, authorities said. The third-grader had visited several Mexican cities on a family vacation, said Clifton Barnes, spokesman for the Lorain County Emergency Management Agency.

"He went to a fair, he went to a farm, he went to visit family around Mexico," Barnes said.

The boy has a mild case and is recovering at his home in Elyria, in northern Ohio, authorities said.

At St. Francis, parent Jackie Casola said Sunday that her son Robert Arifo, a sophomore, told her on Thursday that a number of children had been sent home because of illness. On Friday, he said hardly anyone was in school.

Robert hasn't shown any symptoms, but some of his friends have, his mother said, and she has been extra vigilant about his health. "I must have drove him crazy, I kept taking his temperature in the middle of the night," Casola said.

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Associated Press writers Josh Hoffner, Jennifer Peltz and Deepti Hajela in New York and John Hanna in Topeka, Kan., contributed to this report.

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