State Department of Health officials said Wednesday they are investigating two suspected cases of swine flu in Schenectady County and one in Albany County.
The state’s Wadsworth Center laboratory is examining patient specimens to determine whether they are swine flu or seasonal flu, said Department of Health spokeswoman Claire Pospisil. The flus share similar respiratory symptoms. The differences are that swine flu may also cause runny nose, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
“This is the way the system works. We will test them to determine whether they are positive for seasonal flu or swine flu,” Pospisil said.
There have been no confirmed cases of swine flu in Schenectady and Albany counties since the contagious respiratory disease was first reported about a week ago in New York City. The disease broke out in Mexico in March and has since spread to several other countries. The World Health Organization said the disease is approaching pandemic proportions.
The state said Wednesday it found three confirmed cases of swine flu in Cortland, Orange and Suffolk counties. They were found among 21 samples tested at Wadsworth Tuesday. The other samples tested out as either regular seasonal flu or as nothing, state officials said.
“We do not see a cause for alarm at this time,” Gov. David Paterson said at a news conference Wednesday. “We are assuming there will be cases of the virus outside of New York City. It is important for the public to pay attention to the evolving situation and to know how to avoid spreading the virus.”
Health Commissioner Dr. Richard F. Daines said the state is treating the sick people with antiviral medication and they are responding well to treatment. No one has died from the disease in New York, although a toddler ill with swine flu died Tuesday in Texas. State health officials said the child’s health was already precarious prior to contracting the disease.
Pospisil said the suspected swine flu cases from Schenectady and Albany counties are among 75 suspected cases from throughout the state under investigation.
Paterson urged New Yorkers to remain calm. “We are preparing ourselves for a worst-case scenario and have anticipated it would spread,” he said.
Paterson called this strain of the swine flu novel. “It seems to be a mixture of swine, bird and human influenza elements. Therefore, it is a hybrid and may be a strain of influenza for which we are not familiar.”
Daines said medical authorities have not yet developed a vaccine for the disease but may have one available by next year. “We would rapidly push it into the population when available but we do not know whether that will be necessary,” he said.
Local medical officials said residents are concerned but are remaining calm.
Dr. Kevin Karpowicz, a pediatrician with Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, said, “we haven’t seen much of it yet, as far as people panicking or getting worried.”
Swine flu can be treated with the drugs Oseltamivir or Zanamivir, which are in stock. “The flu shot won’t [work] because there is no vaccine for this one,” Karpowicz said. “The biggest preventive measures are good hand washing and staying away from people with flu.”
Joe Gambino of Hometown Health, which treats a large population of uninsured and low-income people, said the state had not raised the alert level for his health agency Wednesday. “We are not seeing people coming in saying they are afraid. But it is like anything else. You should just take preventive steps you would normally do. If diagnosed with any kind of flu, stay in and stay away from lots of people,” he said.
Some Capital Region organizations are implementing precautions. Tech Valley High School in North Greenbush canceled a trip to New York City to safeguard the health of students. The New York Association of Homes and Services for the Aging is requesting the public’s help in safeguarding at-risk elderly residents.
Also Wednesday, Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville conducted a media briefing to detail the hospital’s response to the federal government’s swine flu alert. Hospital staff have been prepared to recognize the symptoms of the disease and have a system to react quickly if a patient exhibits them.
Hospital Vice President of Development Sue Kiernan said Nathan Littauer has not yet had any cases of suspected swine flu. She said as of Wednesday there have been no calls to Fulton County’s Department of Health about the disease.
Dr. Laurence Horowitz, a physician at Nathan Littauer, said members of the public should stop thinking of “swine flu” and just worry about the flu.
“You’re much better off just saying ‘flu.’ The flu is a different disease from anything we deal with because influenza is able to mutate. Frequently the flu virus will change across species lines. If it’s in birds we call it avian flu, if it’s in pigs we call it swine flu,” Horowitz said. “This is a particular type of flu; it’s no more deadly than any flu, except none of us, unless you work with pigs, is probably going to be immune to it. So the number of people who will get sick if it spreads is much greater.”
Martin Strosberg, professor of health care management and bioethics at Union Graduate College, said health and government agencies appear prepared to handle any outbreak.
“I think we have learned a lot from the 1976 swine flu false alarm and from SARS and from planning for the avian flu pandemic. There is a development of a plan that extends on all levels of government,” Strosberg said.
Strosberg said the world has experienced flu pandemics before, in 1968, 1957 and 1918. The most recent two killed about 50,000 people each while the 1918 Spanish flu killed more than 500,000 people in the United States alone.
The most well-known outbreak of swine flu was in 1976, Strosberg said. It occurred among soldiers in Fort Dix, N.J., resulting in one death. “The government thought this could turn into a serious pandemic and took action, creating a policy to vaccinate all Americans,” he said.
Instead, problems plagued the effort from the start and by the time the vaccine was mass produced and distributed, the crisis had passed. The vaccine also caused problems of its own. “People thought the vaccine was causing a paralysis. The public got scared and stopped taking vaccine. Out of 200 million people, 40 million were vaccinated,” Strosberg said.
Strosberg said it is too soon to determine how deadly this strain of swine flu is. “We do not know how dangerous it is, but we have to be prepared and be vigilant,” he said.