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Swine flu virus starting to look less threatening

The swine flu virus that has frightened the world is beginning to look a little less ominous. New York City officials reported Friday that the swine flu still has not spread beyond a few schools. In Mexico, very few relatives of flu victims seem to have caught the virus.

One flu expert says there's no reason to believe the new virus is a more serious strain than seasonal flu. And a federal health official said the new flu virus doesn't appear to have genes that made the 1918 pandemic flu strain so deadly.

It's too soon to draw any definitive conclusions about what this variation of the H1N1 virus will do. Experts say the only wise course is to prepare for the worst. But in a world that's been rattled by the specter of a global pandemic, glimmers of hope are welcome.



President Obama noted Friday that it's not clear that the swine flu outbreak will turn out to be any worse than ordinary flu.

"It may turn out that H1N1 runs its course like ordinary flus, in which case we will have prepared and we won't need all these preparations," Obama said.

But "we're taking it seriously," he said. Even if the flu turns out mild now, it could come back in a deadlier form during the normal flu season, he said.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the illness so far had proven to be "a relatively minor annoyance."

City health officials say they have found few signs that the local outbreak of swine flu is spreading beyond a few pockets or getting more dangerous. The city has 50 cases, the most of any city in the United States.

Dr. Peter Palese, a leading flu researcher at New York's Mount Sinai Medical School, said the new virus appeared to be similar enough to other common flu strains that "we probably all have some type of immunity."

"There is no real reason to believe this is a more serious strain," he said.

Also Friday, an official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the new swine flu virus lacks the genetic traits that made the 1918 pandemic strain so deadly.

CDC flu chief Nancy Cox said the good news is "we do not see the markers for virulence that were seen in the 1918 virus." Nor does swine flu virus have the virulence traits found in the H5N1 strain of bird flu seen in recent years in Asia and other parts of the world, she said.

"However, we know that there is a great deal that we do not understand" about the strength of the 1918 virus and others that caused serious illnesses, she said. "So we are continuing to learn."

Another CDC official, Dr. Anne Schuchat, said preliminary studies suggest that in U.S. households with an infected person, about a quarter of other family members are getting sick as well.

In some pandemics, the overall infection rate has been as high as 35 percent, Cox said.

She noted the CDC has entered the gene information for the new virus into databases that are publicly available.

"A lot of researchers around the world can begin to look at those gene sequences as well, in case they see something we haven't already seen," she added.

The global flu epidemic early last century was possibly the deadliest outbreak of all time. That virus also was an H1N1 strain - different from the H1N1 strain involved in the current outbreak - and struck mostly healthy young adults. Experts estimate it killed about 40 to 50 million people worldwide.



Swine Flu confirmed in Florida

Gov. Charlie Crist confirmed Friday that two people, one in Broward County and one in Lee County, have tested positive for swine flu.

The Broward case, an 18-year-old female student at Hallandale High, recently traveled to Mexico with her family. The teen's illness prompted the closure of Hallandale High Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. She was last at the school on April 23.

In addition to the Broward case, a boy in Lee County also has the swine flu, according to Gov. Charlie Crist.



Crist, who has assured the public the state is ready to manage an outbreak, declared a public health emergency Friday and directed state Surgeon General Ana Viamonte Ros to help manage the emerging crisis. He said little else.

Dr. Viamonte Ros said the two cases are likely not isolated and that more will soon be reported.

''We cannot predict the course of this outbreak, how it will affect our state. We do expect to see more cases in the coming days and weeks,'' she said.

Viamonte Ros urged people to wash their hands, avoid coughing in hands and to stay home if they feel sick. She said people shouldn't take anti-viral drugs unless prescribed them by a physician, and said physicians shouldn't prescribe them unless a person is sick.

She said the state has numerous monitoring stations and is in contact with physicians and pharmacies to help alert the state to any potential problems.

Viamonte Ros said the state will pull through, but she left no doubt about the serious challenge the state faces.

''As we seen with many other incidents in Florida -- whether they be anthrax, floods, wildfires or hurricanes -- Floridians are resilient people and Florida has a very resilient response system,'' she said.

Under the emergency declaration, which lasts for 60 days, Viamonte Ros can impound medicines, reactivate inactive physician licenses and order the quarantine, examination, vaccination, test or treatment of any individual. Those who are unwilling to be examined, tested, vaccinated or treated due for reasons of health or belief can be involuntarily quarantined.

At Hallandale High, parents and school faculty were being notified Friday through an automated phone system.

A decision on when to reopen the school will be made by Wednesday afternoon; parents and employees will be notified when that decision is made.

''We are working with the Centers for Disease Control to ensure all necessary precautions have been taken and all our residents are brought up to date,'' said Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper.



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