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Swine flu shouldn't impact Derby, officials say

State health officials said fans shouldn't avoid this weekend's Kentucky Derby because of concerns about an emerging swine flu outbreak, although they have plans ready in case the situation gets worse.

"I'm hopeful we'll have a successful Derby," said Dr. William Hacker, Kentucky's public health commissioner.

Because no cases of swine flu had been confirmed in Kentucky, there's no need to avoid large public gatherings like the Kentucky Derby, said Hacker and state epidemiologist Karl Humbaugh.

"This is an evolving situation, but the current evidence would not suggest that we make any change in our plans for this weekend," Hacker said.

In the meantime, the Kentucky Department of Public Health is urging health care providers to be alert for possible swine flu cases, and to submit samples to Frankfort for testing if flu is suspected.

Concerns about swine flu have grown since cases started appearing in Mexico over the past few weeks.

State health officials are urging Kentuckians who have traveled recently to Mexico or other affected areas to monitor themselves for any early signs of flu.

Federal health authorities said they'll urge Americans to avoid unnecessary travel to Mexico, where the new strain is thought to have caused at least 149 deaths. There have been no known fatalities in the United States.

Strains of animal influenza sometimes do make the jump to humans. For example, avian or bird flu afflicted many in Asia eight years ago.

This swine flu strain is concerning because it can cause serious illness in people and apparently can be transmitted from one person to another through close contact.

Public health authorities have said for more than a decade that conditions are ripe for another worldwide flu pandemic, one of which killed millions around the globe in 1918.

Officials still don't know where the new strain came from, or why it seems to be more severe in Mexico than here. There is no vaccine now to prevent the illness, but officials stress that it can be treated with available prescription drugs.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working on a vaccine aimed at the new strain, but it will take months to make, officials said.

Briefing reporters on the Kentucky situation, Hacker said state residents should protect themselves with general cleanliness and regular hand-washing; using tissues to cover their noses and mouths when they sneeze or cough; and avoid touching their eyes, noses or mouths.

Officials also emphasized that those who have mild flu-like symptoms — such as congestion and coughs but no high fevers — should monitor how they feel but not automatically rush to the doctor. That could clog doctors offices and hospitals, they said.

"But if someone is seriously ill, has high fever and difficulty in breathing, they should see a physician, as they normally should do anyway," Hacker said.

Doctors note that the outbreak stems from a new strain of swine flu virus that apparently combines genetic material from human, swine and bird influenza varieties.

Flu viruses are continually evolving, mutating and exchanging genetic material. The fear is that the mixing and matching could one day produce a new strain that is highly virulent to people and easily transmitted.

Hacker noted that the new swine flu strain is one not normally seen in the population.

"Therefore no one has had it before and none of us has any immunity against it," he said.

Hacker said Kentuckians should be concerned but should avoid panic. He said noting that much about the new virus remains unknown. But he also said that regular, seasonal flu killed about 36,000 Americans this year, including almost 1,000 Kentuckians.

Dr. Chris Nelson, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University of Kentucky, said Monday that more U.S. cases are likely.

"We might be seeing the tip of the iceberg," he said. "We've had a very late flu season this year, and I suspect that some of the late flu cases we're seeing now, once we get them tested, may turn out to be the swine flu strain."

Health concerns would rise if many more severe cases started to appear, Nelson said. He noted that in 1918, the flu initially appeared in summer and disappeared, only to return with devastating results in the fall.

Hacker said Monday that although the new flu strain has dramatically affected Mexico City, it could have been brought there from "anywhere in the world."

"This is not a Hispanic problem; it's a matter of worldwide concern," he said.

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