Everyone from doctors and school nurses to travel agents and vacationers are keeping close tabs on reports about swine flu, a virus that has killed at least 149 in Mexico and infected at least 40 in the United States.
The World Health Organization yesterday raised its alert level but stopped short of declaring a global emergency.
No cases have been identified in Massachusetts, but two young siblings in Lowell were being tested yesterday after they got sick during a vacation to Mexico.
Schools and public health boards across the Merrimack Valley issued warnings yesterday, asking folks to report any flu-like symptoms — fever, lethargy, muscle aches, headache, coughing, runny nose and sore throat — to their primary care physicians.
Health officials say they are awaiting results to verify whether the Lowell children — whose names and ages have not been released — have swine flu.
About two dozen people have been tested in Massachusetts in accordance with instructions from the national Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
"It's not something to panic about. But you need to go to the doctor," said Patricia Fabian, a University of Massachusetts - Lowell researcher studying influenza transmission. She noted the swine flu "seems to be responding to Tamiflu treatments."
Travel to Mexico discouraged
Along with the health warnings came alerts about foreign travel. Only "essential travel" to Mexico is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
That's something Maria Perez at Silverio Travel on Essex Street in Lawrence has heard plenty about. Eight clients with upcoming trips to Cancun and Playa del Carmen called to cancel or postpone their trips yesterday.
"Mexico is one of the destinations we sell a lot of trips too," said Perez. The calls from concerned vacationers started coming in on Friday and continued yesterday, she said.
Some clients decided to cancel their trips. Others decided to postpone their vacations until the flu reports die down, she said.
Fabian said such precautions are reasonable responses to the current situation.
"If you don't have to travel, don't," said Fabian.
Some students from Hampstead (N.H.) Middle School are making their way home from Mexico. There on a class trip to study Mayan and Aztec cultures, the group decided to end their 10-day trip early after tour leaders decided the most cautious path to take was to fly the children back to New York City.
Swine flu is spread by sneezes and coughs. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is recommending people cover their mouths when coughing and sneezing and following strict hand-washing protocols.
Local health care providers and emergency room workers will continue to be on the lookout for flu-like symptoms, especially in people who have traveled to Mexico and anywhere else outside the United States with confirmed swine flu cases, according to the state.
The research team Fabian is part of has tested people with the influenza virus from Hong Kong and Massachusetts for more than a year. The team, conducting a study funded by the Centers for Disease Control, has already reached preliminary findings that indicate an illness like swine flu may be more easily spread through airborne virus particles than previously thought.
As a result, existing plans designed to prevent the spread of pandemic flu may not be adequate, she said. By researching how the flu is spread, the team is hopeful they can determine how to stop it, Fabian said.
Most sickened in U.S. recovering
Twenty-eight students from a private New York High School were diagnosed with the swine flu yesterday. The students all became ill after a spring break trip to Mexico.
The latest New York City figures brought the number of confirmed swine flu cases in the United States to 40.
However, most of those sickened in the U.S. have recovered or are recovering. That's a stark difference from the deadly outbreak in Mexico that authorities can't yet explain.
Fabian lived in northern Mexico until 2001 when she came to the United States to attend graduate school. Fortunately, none of her relatives back home have become ill.
"Not so far. Everyone is staying in the house," Fabian said.
The U.S. government has declared a public health emergency to respond to the outbreak, which also has sickened people in Kansas, California and Texas. Health officials in Michigan said they have one suspected case. Many of those thought to be infected had recently visited Mexico.
Also yesterday, Richard Besser, acting head of the CDC, revealed that American authorities were undertaking "passive screening" at its borders and urged the nation to remain calm.
Besser said that U.S. officials at border checkpoints were "asking people about fever and illness, looking for people who are ill."
The World Health Organization raised the alert level to Phase 4, meaning there is sustained human-to-human transmission of the virus causing outbreaks in at least one country.
Its alert system was revised after bird flu in Asia began to spread in 2004, and Monday was the first time it was raised above Phase 3.
Be safe from swine flu
The following are steps that everyone should be taking to prevent the spread of any type of influenza:
Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective.
Practice good "cough etiquette" by coughing or sneezing into a tissue, or into your elbow instead of into your hands.
Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
If you get sick, stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to avoid infecting them.
If you or a loved one is experiencing flu symptoms, contact your local health care provider or doctor and make them aware of your symptoms.
Source: Lawrence Inspectional Services Division