April 28, 2009 in City

Officials urge vigilance against swine flu

Region’s health workers reaching out to migrant farmworkers as toll rises in Mexico
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Health officials say the spread of swine flu to Washington and Idaho is inevitable and urged people Monday to take precautions.

“I think there’s a good probability that it’s here now,” said Dr. Larry Jecha, the acting health officer for Spokane County.

He is especially concerned about the thousands of migrant farmworkers and their families who continue to arrive from Mexico to work the orchards and vegetable farms in central Washington.

The suspected number of deaths rose to 149 in Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak with nearly 2,000 people believed to be infected.

Jecha said health officials are working with Spanish-language media including newspapers and radio stations to reach farmworker populations. Many seek medical care at several clinics, attend church and enroll their children in public schools.

“Sometimes it takes a while to get the word out, but we’re going to do everything we can to be there in case there’s a need,” Jecha said. It’s the same for people seeking work without proper permits and registration.

“If someone needs help and we can stop a disease from spreading, we’ll do it,” Jecha said. “We’re interested in people’s health, not politics.”

The United States, which had 50 cases of swine flu – none fatal – as of Monday night, has warned against travel to Mexico.

The U.S. stepped up checks of people entering the country by air, land and sea, and the State Department warned U.S. citizens to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico. It said those who live in Mexico should avoid hospitals or clinics there unless they have a medical emergency.

People in California, Kansas, Ohio and Texas have tested positive along with 28 in New York City. Six people in Canada, including British Columbia, along with one person from Spain and two from Scotland have the virus.

The speed of the disease’s spread led the World Health Organization to raise its alert level to a Phase 4 out of a possible six, which is a full-blown pandemic.

There is no vaccine for this new strain of influenza A, but prescription drugs are available – including oseltamivir, sold under the brand name Tamiflu, and zanamivir, sold as Relenza.

Spokane County can access an emergency federal supply of the medications in case the swine flu turns into a pandemic affecting the local population.

Bill Edstrom, an epidemiologist with the Spokane Regional Health District, said the disease is spread from person to person. It is called the swine flu because the virus leaped from infecting its pig host to sickening people.

Flu viruses are not spread by food, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture published memos saying properly cooked pork is safe to eat.

Infected people experience symptoms within seven days of catching the disease.

Health officials are especially concerned for people returning from spring break vacations to Mexico who become ill.

Symptoms of swine flu are akin to the symptoms experienced by many people every year during the winter and spring flu season. They include fever, cough and throat soreness. Also, sufferers may lose their appetite, become fatigued or nauseated, have a runny nose and suffer bouts of vomiting and diarrhea.

Most labs can perform rapid tests to discern if a person has the flu and whether it is type A or B.

Determining if someone has the new swine flu virus is more difficult. Only the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the means to test for it.

But Edstrom said state health departments across the country should have the ability to test by the end of the week.

He said vaccines won’t likely be ready for four to six months.

While the swine flu has captured attention because of its unusual origin and adaptability, Edelman noted that flu is a recurring danger. About 36,000 Americans die from an influenza viral infection every year.

Stopping the spread is difficult, but the disease can be slowed if people:

•Cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.

•Washed their hands often with soapy water or used alcohol-based cleaners.

•Stayed home when sick to avoid infecting others

•Avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth.

The health district will hold daily press briefings to keep the community apprised of any local swine flu developments.

John Stucke can be reached at (509) 459-5419 or johnst@spokesman.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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