As swine influenza spreads globally, local health care providers and emergency officials are doing the only things possible — wait and prepare.
The World Health Organization, which recently raised its pandemic alert to Phase 5, the second highest level, has urged governments and health officials to plan for a likely pandemic of the new Type A flu strain that first appeared in Mexico and has since emerged in nine countries.
As of Thursday, 109 confirmed U.S. cases of swine flu, also known as H1N1 flu, have been reported in 10 states — mostly in California, New York and Texas — with one fatality, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pennsylvania has had four probable but unconfirmed cases, a 2-year-old child and three adults, all from the Philadelphia area.
Local concern mounts. Penn State has canceled or rescheduled three trips to Mexico, and the State College Area School District on Thursday sent an e-mail alert about swine flu to parents.
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Dr. Evan Bell, an infectious disease specialist with Centre Medical and Surgical Associates, said local doctors these days are looking closely for flu-like symptoms, and they ask patients about their recent travels.
Initial tests can identify general Type A flu, but if the new strain can’t be ruled out, specimens go to the state Department of Health for further testing. One local case so far has required that, Bell said.
Bell called the outbreak “serious” but said the swine flu strain, though alarming because a vaccine doesn’t exist and could be months from development, is behaving like seasonal flu.
“It’s influenza, so it’s spread exactly the same way (as seasonal flu), produces the same illness,” he said. “So we just have to sort of remember that flu is circulating in the world, just in a different time than we’re used to.”
Like regular flu, swine flu is transmitted from person to person — either by sneezes or coughs or from contact with infected surfaces — and causes fever, coughs, sore throats, headaches, chills and fatigue. Children, the elderly and anyone with weakened immune systems are also the most vulnerable.
Swine flu, the CDC says, does not come from eating pork or pork products.
In the Geisinger Health System, which includes the Gray’s Woods clinic in Patton Township, the prospect of a swine flu pandemic has prompted a long week of discussion.
Dr. Michael Foltzer, Geisinger’s director of infectious diseases, said Geisinger formed a pandemic flu plan for its Danville hospital and statewide clinics two and half years ago in response to avian flu.But even so, Foltzer said, Geisinger has been tackling a host of pressing issues, including defining procedures for treating infected patients and obtaining additional antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu from state and federal reserves.
“I don’t think we really know the extent of this and what’s going to happen,” Foltzer said. “So yes, there’s definitely concern. This is being taken very seriously by everyone in our health system.”
A Mount Nittany Medical Center spokeswoman said Thursday that hospital officials this week had been preparing for local swine flu cases. No further details were available.
Randy Rockey, emergency management director for Centre County, said his office stands ready to help health officials and medical personnel in the event of a local swine flu outbreak. If activated, the county Emergency Operations Center could arrange for respirators and extra facilities or assist with communications, he said.
“We play a support role,” he said.
In the meantime, health officials say, people should take basic precautions — careful hand washing with soap, covering mouths with tissues when coughing or sneezing, not touching your eyes, nose and mouth, and keeping away from sick people.
Those sanitary measures have long been drummed into the Foxdale Village retirement community, the type of facility at risk from infections. Director Bill James said swine flu has just heightened the need for vigilance.
“We’ve just taken that up a notch and reminded people even more,” he said. “Really, at this point, that’s all we can do.”
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.