With news that at least 20 cases of a new, potentially deadly strain of the swine flu virus had emerged in various regions of the United States and Mexico, U.S. officials and the World Health Organization are calling it "a public health emergency of international concern."
Dr. Keiji Fukuda, deputy director general of WHO, told The New York Times, “We’re in a period in which the picture is evolving. We need to know the extent to which it causes mild and serious infections.” Until that information has been obtained, he said, his organization would not describe the situation as a global pandemic, despite opening an emergency response center Sunday.
At a news conference in Washington, D.C., Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called the emergency declaration “standard operating procedure,” adding that she would rather call it a “declaration of emergency preparedness.” Said she, “It’s like declaring one for a hurricane. It means we can release funds and take other measures. The hurricane may not actually hit.”
U.S. medical experts predicted that more cases would crop up in the United States but told Americans that they should not panic. The way the world sprang into action around the bird flu and SARS scares in recent years offer promise, they say.
By declaring the matter an emergency, the U.S. government can release more money for antiviral drugs and even vaccinate children with some previously unapproved drugs. A quarter of America’s stockpile of 50 million doses of anti-flu drugs will be released. At the borders and at airports, security officers will question travelers as to whether they’ve been ill or had the flu or fever. Anyone looking ill or answering “yes” will be taken to the side, given masks and provided medical care.
“This is moving fast and we expect to see more cases,” Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at the news conference with Napolitano. “But we view this as a marathon.”