Urging calm but caution, President Barack Obama on Friday said that it is not clear the swine flu outbreak in the United States and other nations is any worse than "ordinary flus." But he said agencies across the government are preparing for the worst.
Even if the new flu "is relatively mild on the front end, it could come back in a more virulent form during the actual flu season," Obama said at the close of a Cabinet meeting devoted to the topic.
The president described a two-pronged U.S. response to the swine flu, a mix of pig, bird and human genes to which people have limited natural immunity.
He said the immediate effort remains to identify people who have the flu, get medical help to the right places and provide clear guidance to both state and local officials and the public. Obama said his government is also doing longer-range work — producing a vaccine, developing clear guidelines for school closings, trying to ensure that businesses cooperate with workers who run out of sick leave, and preparing for requests for aid from other countries.
"I'm optimistic that we're going to be able to manage this effectively," Obama said.
In the United States, the confirmed case count stood at more than 130. State lab operators say there have been more cases than are counted, because officials are not testing all suspected cases, focusing instead on finding new outbreak hot spots and limiting the flu's spread. The flu has reached several countries.
Death rate leveling off in Mexico?
In Mexico, the outbreak's epicenter, new cases and the death rate were leveling off, the country's top medical officer said.
Obama referred to the flu by its scientific name, H1N1. The World Health Organization has stopped using the term "swine flu" to avoid suggesting there's a danger posed by pigs.
"We don't know for certain that this will end up being more severe than other seasonal flus that we have," Obama said. "And it's been noted, I think, before that you have over 36,000 people die on average every year from seasonal flus. You have 200,000 hospitalizations. It may turn out that H1N1 runs its course like ordinary flus, in which case we will have prepared and we won't need all these preparations."
Still, he said, Americans and people around the world have not built up immunity to this new flu strain, "So that's why we're taking it seriously."