The swine flu epidemic hit home yesterday with an extra wallop for some Hampstead Middle School students. Their 10-day Mexican trip to study Mayan and Aztec cultures was cut in half, as tour leaders decided "the most cautious path to take" was to fly the children back to New York City today.
So far, no New Hampshire residents have become ill with swine flu, according to Dr. Jose Montero, director of the state's Public Health Department.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced 40 confirmed cases in the U.S. in five states — California, New York, Ohio, Texas and Kansas — as of yesterday. But that number is sure to grow. It's also likely more states will be reporting cases, and New Hampshire could be one of them, Montero said.
Meanwhile, the state is moving swiftly to head off a possible public health emergency by enlisting help from hospitals, doctors and the public.
"We are actively looking for cases," he said.
State health officials are contacting hospitals and other health-care providers, asking for reports of anyone ill with flu-like symptoms, especially if the patients have recently traveled to Mexico or come into contact with someone on a recent trip.
Gov. John Lynch has established a swine flu hotline at 1-888-330-6764. The line is open between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. to answer the public's questions about symptoms, travel advisories and prevention.
"We all can do something to stop the spread," Montero said.
Those precautions include washing hands frequently, covering a cough, and staying home from school or work when ill.
The state lab has streamlined its testing procedures to allow faster gathering and testing of samples. Health officials have prepared fact sheets about swine flu, which are available on the Web site at www.dhhs.nh.gov.
The state Health and Human Services Department is notifying schools to report any illnesses immediately, Montero said. So far, no special precautions have been ordered to clean the schools, he said. Most New Hampshire schools are on vacation this week, which has increased the potential number of students traveling to Mexico. If they are ill on an airplane, returning home, he said, they may be screened for swine flu when the plane lands.
But swine flu symptoms may not be evident for four to five days, Montero said. If students become ill after they return to school, the state health department will have to deal with the follow-up.
So far, there is no vaccine for swine flu, and state officials are warning people not to try to immunize themselves by taking medications like Tamiflu. That won't protect them and could create a resistant strain, which would not respond to treatment.
The 40 confirmed U.S. cases have been mild and the patients are recovering. But some 60 Mexicans — among the 800 or 900 who contracted swine flu — have died. Health officials do not know why and cannot yet predict how serious a swine flu pandemic might be.
"We don't know which way it's going," Montero said.
Lynch met with the health department and other state agencies yesterday and again today, according to his press secretary Colin Manning.
"This is something we've trained for over the last several years; it's the exact situation we've prepared for," he said.
The Mexican trip the Hampstead students were on was organized by EF Educational Tours in Cambridge, Mass.
Lori van Dam, executive vice president of communications, said she was unaware of any students on the tour becoming ill. Asked if the youngsters were frightened, she said, as far as she knew, they were all having a great time in Mexico.
"The group is coming home tomorrow morning and will do sightseeing in New York City before they come home," she said yesterday.
Van Dam said she was unsure if the youngsters would spend one or two days in Manhattan before returning home. The New York City trip was offered to make up for the loss of the five days in Mexico, she said.
Seven Hampstead Middle School eighth-graders and their Spanish teacher left Boston last Thursday on a flight bound for Mexico City.
When their plane took off, the students' families and the chaperones were unaware the flight was bound for the epicenter of a swine flu epidemic, School Board member Natalie Gallo said yesterday.
Also on board were three adult chaperones and seven students from Manchester Central High.
Gallo said the impact on Hampstead Middle School could have been worse. In past years, most of the eighth-grade class took the Mexico trip. This year, fewer parents sent their children on the tour, possibly because of the economy or because of political unrest in Mexico, she said.
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