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Official: Goal To Minimize Swine Flu Impact

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Today President Barack Obama asked for an additional $1.5 billion to fight the swine flu outbreak. And a Senate committee held the first of what is likely to be many hearings on how the outbreaks are being handled. In New York there are now hundreds of children in the same school with suspected cases of swine flu, as well as two other cases not related to the school.

Meanwhile, scientists around the world are racing to figure out how many people have been infected and where the disease is likely to go next. NPR's Joanne Silberner has the latest.

JOANNE SILBERNER: The new cases aren't a surprise. Health experts have been expecting them. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the goal of public health agencies in the U.S. is to minimize the impact of the new virus. Right now, he says, states with and without infections are receiving items from a national stockpile.

Dr. RICHARD BESSER (Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): It includes antiviral drugs. It includes gowns and masks, the things that could be used in hospitals to take care of patients. And this is a forward leaning step.

SILBERNER: With the worldwide threat level up from three to four on a scale of six, the big question is when does it go to five, or will it? Keiji Fukuda of the World Health Organization says not yet.

Dr. KEIJI FUKUDA (World Health Organization): So even though we know that the virus has reached the United Kingdom and New Zealand, for example, in the form of infections in travelers, this is still a different situation than the infection becoming established in a community in those countries.

SILBERNER: Which would be a sign that the virus has really taken root. He says it could be hard to tell if the virus is going away, even if the case number stops increasing. The virus could follow the path of its relative, seasonal or winter flu, and leave as the cold weather leaves. But that wouldn't necessarily be good news. It could come back with the winter.

Dr. FUKUDA: Even if activity goes down and becomes quiet over the next few weeks, I think it will be very hard to know whether this virus has actually disappeared until several months have gone by at the very least.

SILBERNER: Fukuda says it's time to go beyond individual infections and individual countries and think about what will happen if the infection hits other poor countries besides Mexico.

Dr. FUKUDA: We know from history, we know from the analysis of past pandemics and we also know from many infectious diseases and health problems that the poor and the developing countries are the ones who really get hit the hardest.

SILBERNER: Legislators on Capitol Hill are focusing on what to in the U.S. Today was the first of at least four scheduled hearings this week. Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, took the opportunity to applaud Congress.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): The good news is that our investments in pandemic preparedness are paying off in this outbreak. We have been able to improve surveillance, which may have played a part in recognizing some of the early cases.

SILBERNER: And there are the antiviral drugs that are now being delivered around the country. But Harkin says it's important now to beef up local and state public health agencies, many of which have been hit by budget cuts.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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United States & World Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Joanne Silberner is a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio. She covers medicine, health reform, and changes in the health care marketplace.