Worried Sick about swine flu

As millions of people from Mexico to Queens worry about swine flu, the city has begun investigating a possible new cluster at another Fresh Meadows school as the H1N1 virus claimed its first U.S. fatality.

On Tuesday, April 28, 80 students out of 380 at P.S. 177 called out sick.

Department Of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) Commissioner Tom Frieden said officials were doing tests on 12 students who reported fevers to see if there was another cluster of swine flu at the school – just two miles from St. Francis Prep – for autistic children in grades 1 through 12.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said one of the students at P.S. 177 has a sibling that goes to Prep, where, on Saturday, April 25, the DOHMH began investigating and determined that at least 28 students had “human swine influenza,” H1N1. More than 100 of the school’s students were absent several days the week prior due to fever, sore throats and other flu-like symptoms. Several had just returned from Easter break trips to Cancun, Mexico, which was reporting 152 deaths from swine flu as of Wednesday, April 29.

Of the more than 100 Prep students and their families interviewed by the DOHMH, all had mild symptoms and none were hospitalized. Some family members did, however, develop similar symptoms, suggesting spread in the family.

According to the DOHMH, “Swine flu is a respiratory infection caused by influenza type A viruses that regularly cause outbreaks of influenza in pigs. People do not normally get swine flu, but human infections can occur. Human cases typically involve people who have had direct contact with pigs, but person-to-person transmission is suspected among recent cases in the southwest. The cases in Mexico have had a high fatality rate, but the eight recently confirmed cases from California and Texas have been mild.”

As of Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported 51 cases of swine flu in New York City, including Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan, and 91 in the country, with one death – a 23-month-old boy from Texas.

Published reports say that the White House will ask Congress for $1.5 billion to combat the disease.

“Internationally, the situation is more serious too, with additional countries reporting confirmed cases of swine flu,” states the CDC web site. “In response to the intensifying outbreak, the World Health Organization raised the worldwide pandemic alert level to Phase 4. A Phase 4 alert is characterized by confirmed person-to-person spread of a new influenza virus able to cause ‘community-level’ outbreaks. The increase in the pandemic alert phase indicates that the likelihood of a pandemic has increased.”

In response, the CDC activated its emergency operations center to reduce transmission and illness severity, and provide information to help health care providers, public health officials and the public address the challenges posed by this swine influenza virus.

CDC’s Division of the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) also continues to send antiviral drugs, personal protective equipment and respiratory protection devices to all 50 states and U.S. territories to help them respond to the outbreak. The swine influenza A virus is susceptible to the prescription antiviral drugs oseltamivir and zanamivir, according to the CDC.

On Monday, April 27, the CDC issued a travel warning recommending that people avoid non-essential travel to Mexico. Its Division of the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) is releasing one-quarter of its anti-viral drugs, personal protective equipment and respiratory protection devices to help states respond to the outbreak.

“We do not want anyone to be unduly alarmed,” said Governor David Paterson, who noted that New York State has 2.5 million treatment courses of anti-viral medications.

“So far, nothing about the progression of swine flu in our city has surprised us,” said Bloomberg. “It is acting like every other traditional strain of flu.”

Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda Gibbs urged people not to go to the emergency room unless necessary to “avoid the overrun of people with no symptoms but fear.”

Meanwhile, the city has stopped doing swine flu tests for St. Francis Prep, and Bloomberg said hundreds of students have filled out questionnaires reporting the same symptoms. The mayor said he wouldn’t be surprised if more than 100 students had this strain of the flu, but they would test anyone at the school or outside of the school who reported serious symptoms.

“Our focus now is to look at what’s happening citywide and take whatever measures we can to reduce the spread,” he said.

St. Francis Prep Principal Brother Leonard Conway announced that the school would close for rest of the week, as per DOHMH guidelines. All school-related activities have been cancelled as well, and SATs that were scheduled for Saturday, May 2 at St. Francis have been postponed.

“We are strongly encouraging all parents, if the child is still not feeling well on Monday, they should not send their child to school.”

“They [the DOHMH] didn’t tell us to close for the rest of the week,” said Conway. “That was us being proactive. Every single piece of furniture in this building,

in every classroom, lab and office, was washed down with a heavy duty disinfectant.”

School will likely re-open Monday, May 4, and it would likely be a "normal school day."

“No one should be afraid to go about their day, to go to work, to go to their school to go to their park,” Bloomberg said. “So far, this disease looks like the one we have every year.”

Paterson echoed the sentiment.

“We do not see any real danger ahead,” he said. “Parents should feel safe sending their children to school.”

-With reporting by Pete Davis and Noah Rosenberg

Click here to read about the mixed reactions to St. Francis Prep’s handling of the outbreak

Click here to read about the emergence of swine flu at St. John’s University

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