Swine Flu Hawaii
As the number of confirmed swine flu cases in the U.S. rose above three dozen Monday, health officials in Hawaii announced steps to try and prevent the outbreak from reaching the shores of the aloha state.
As of Friday, the state had expanded the passive screening of airline passengers arriving in Hawaii. Such screening requires the crew of a jetliner to report any travelers who are experiencing flu-like symptoms.
“We currently have that in place at the Honolulu International Airport (and) we have it partially in place in the Big Island,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park. Park said there is a loose network of passive screening on Maui and Kauai, which officials will officially formalize in the next few days.
Gov. Linda Lingle likened the precautionary steps being taken to the arrival of hurricane season and urged Hawaii residents not to panic.
“Even though there may not be a lot of hurricanes predicted for that year, we still ask everyone to go out and prepare your own personal hurricane kit,” said the governor. “It's a time to be alert and vigilant…but not to be alarmed in any way.”
In Mexico, ground zero for the swine flu outbreak, 149 people are suspected of dying as a result of the virus with more than 1,600 sickened.
The Centers for Disease Control has confirmed 28 cases in New York City, 7 in California, 1 in Ohio and 2 each in Texas and Kansas. All forty U.S. patients have fully recovered from what health officials labeled as mild cases.
Still, the possibility of a widespread pandemic exists.
On Monday, the World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert for swine flu by one level to Phase 4, two steps short of declaring a full pandemic. The CDC is also advising Americans to avoid all nonessential travel to Mexico. The European Union issued a similar travel advisory for Mexico and the U.S.
Two antivirals, Tamiflu and Relenza, have proven effective in treating swine flu. Several years ago Hawaii purchased about 350,000 doses of the drugs. That’s enough for about 25% of the state’s population, which at any time may include several hundred thousand tourists.
State Health Director Dr. Chiyome Fukino said 11% percent of Hawaii’s stockpile is currently controlled by her department, with the rest stored at the Strategic National Stockpile.
“Hawaii is in the third tier for any medications coming additionally through the Strategic National Stockpile, where the rest of our supply is currently being held,” said Fukino.
States first in line to receive antiviral medications include those with confirmed cases of swine flu and those that border Mexico.
Officials say if the swine flu were to reach Hawaii, the state has a comprehensive system of so-called sentinel physicians tasked with reporting suspected cases.
“We are asking those sentinel physicians to help us in insuring that they proceed to send up all specimens to us so that we can be sure to have our eyes and ears wide open,” said Park.
Experts in microbiology say the swine flu represents more of a challenge than traditional influenza because the bug has taken genetic material from other viruses.
“These type of viruses, they have new parts picked up from other viruses and so what happens we don't have any protection against those,” said Virginia Hinshaw, a trained microbiologist and chancellor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Dr. Park urged Hawaii families to prepare for the possibility of quarantine if the swine flu began affecting the state.
“We have no cases reported here thus far but that may not be for long,” said Park. “What would happen if we do have cases here and we have to close a school? What are your plans now? Are you prepared?”.