State officials prepare for swine flu

Barb Sharp
Barb Sharp
Brandon Dela Cruz
Brandon Dela Cruz
Dr. Sarah Park
Dr. Sarah Park

By Leland Kim - bio | email

HONOLULU (KHNL) -  Hawaii and other states across the country are bracing for a possible swine flu pandemic.  Internationally, people are also taking precautions.

Late Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised its pandemic threat level, to four out of six. This means the swine flu is being passed between humans and the likelihood that it'll become a global pandemic has increased substantially.

In Mexico, there are 149 deaths and nearly 2,000 people, thought to be infected, about 700 or so are still hospitalized with pneumonia.

In Europe, the ealth commissioner urges Europeans to suspend any non-essential travel to the U.S. and Mexico.

In airports around Asia, thermal scanners are checking passengers for fever.   Hong Kong and Taiwan have said, anyone returning from an infected region that develops a fever within two weeks, will be quarantined.

Russia and China have banned imports of some North American pork products, even though the virus cannot be contracted by eating the meat.  The World Health Organization stresses that, although the threat level has been raised, the world should be cautious and prudent, but there is no need for panic.

In just days, there have been 40 infections of swine flu in five U.S. states, none of them have been fatal.

Monday afternoon, Hawaii state leaders say, we are safe so far, but now is not the time to let our guard down.

"I want the people of Hawaii to know that it's a time to be alert, vigilant, to follow the department of health recommendations, but not to be alarmed," said Gov. Linda Lingle, R-Hawaii.

"We're monitoring the on-going of this swine flu influenza at that national level, international level and also the local developments," said Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, director of the state civil defense.

The state has about 300,000 doses of medication to treat the disease.  That's enough for a quarter of Hawaii's population, plus supply for visitors.

Still, air travelers are wondering if they're at risk and state health officials say, swine flu is easily transmissible from person to person.

At this time, there was one suspected case of swine flu on our islands, but it turned out to be a mild strain of influenza.  But health experts say, it's still early, and it's not a matter of if, but when swine flu will hit Hawaii.

Honolulu International Airport greets thousands of people every day.  Ever since the swine flu outbreak was first reported in Mexico, air travelers have been concerned.

"You just really have to be careful. you have to be careful about what you do, who you're around, you have to be aware of your environment," said Barb Sharp, who flew in from Grants Pass, Oregon Monday morning.  "You have to wash your hands and keep yourself clean but you really need to be aware."

And Brandon Dela Cruz just flew in from San Francisco after finishing a work meeting, but last week, he was in Ensenada, Mexico.

"It's a trip because I was just there," he said.  "And to be where everything started is like, wow, I just missed it."

Health officials say the concern is that airplanes have a closed air system. So, if a passenger has swine flu, he could theoretically pass it on to others on that flight.   But the symptoms may not be obvious right away.

"So it's not like you will come off a flight and be immediately ill from this," said Dr. Sarah Park, the state's disease outbreak control division chief.  "Therefore people who are coming from areas, we ask them to be mindful seven days after they arrived."

That's because the incubation period for influenza could be up to a week.  Hawaii health officials are getting ready for it, and the strategy changes once it's been identified.

"Their focus is no longer on containment," said Dr. Park. "It's on ensuring access to health care, ensuring identification of new cases to ensure control in the community."

Still air travelers say this threat won't prevent them from seeing the world.

"I'm still going to go and do the things I'm going to do but I do look around but I'm a bit more cautious of maybe being around people that coughing and maybe moving away a bit," said Sharp.

Again, not a single case of swine flu reported in Hawaii so far.  But health and state officials are taking precautionary steps to prepare for it in case it reaches our shores.