Despite rapid spread, Texas officials call flu outbreak 'mild'

AUSTIN — Texas health experts said Friday that they expect swine flu to continue to spread rapidly, but noted that most of the cases thus far have been mild, raising hopes that the new influenza strain will be no worse than seasonal flu cases that grip Americans each year.

As of Friday, 28 cases had been confirmed in Texas, compared to three at the start of the week. The tally includes the nation's only swine flu death — a child from Mexico who died in a Houston area hospital. Of the others, only one patient has been hospitalized, a resident from Cameron County in far South Texas who was transferred to a hospital in San Antonio.

Swine flu, now being called H1N1 flu, was Topic A at a gathering of more than 2,000 Texas doctors attending the annual conference of the Texas Medical Association. Hundreds attended a briefing by Texas Health Commissioner David Lakey, who has become the state's point man for information about the rapidly spreading disease.

"This is a dynamic situation where we’re trying to get information as quickly as we can," Lakey said. "In over a week, this has gone to several different areas."

Although Texas had only one hospitalization, Lakey reported increased activity at emergency rooms since the outbreak started. But he said it was hard to tell whether the increase reflected legitimate cases or people who were simply worried that they might have the disease.

Applause erupted when a member of the audience asked: "Why aren't we closing the border?" Lakey responded that only the federal government could address that question.

Dr. Edward Sherwood, who chairs the TMA's infectious disease committee, said that he believes the Fort Worth School district acted correctly in closing all its schools, despite subsequent complaints that school officials overreacted.

"They're responsive to a lot of very concerned parents," said Sherwood, who participated in the briefing with Lakey. "So I would not characterize what they did as over-reaction. Or if I did, I would call it appropriate over-reaction. Better to close the schools and be criticized later than not to close the schools and have some dire consequences for the children."

Sherwood predicted that H1N1 flu will spread rapidly and ultimately reach most parts of the country, but he noted that the number of serious cases is "reasonably small."

“So far, it’s looking like this is going to be not too serious,” said Sherwood. Medical authorities, he cautiously hopeful that the new strain “is not going to be any more serious than seasonal influenza,” which causes an estimated 36,000 deaths annually.

Although the “vast majority” of Texas cases are mild, said Lakey, he cautioned Texans to rigidly follow well-publicized precautions, such as avoiding close contact, washing their hands and staying home whenever they feel sick. Children, the elderly, pregnant women and individuals with chronic illnesses are particularly vulnerable to the disease, he said.

Texas has 1.7 million treatment courses, in addition to anti-virals in private systems, he said. A course is the amount of medicine prescribed to a patient, and may consist of multiple doses. The message he hopes to convey to the public, he said, is: “this is a serious situation but we don’t panic.”

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