Obama Says H1N1 Flu 'Cause for Concern, Not Alarm'
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 1, 2009 The outbreak of H1N1 flu "is a cause for concern, but not alarm," President Barack Obama said today after meeting with his Cabinet.
Government officials are monitoring the situation closely, he said, and the health and the safety of the American people is his top priority.
A week after learning about the novel strain of flu virus affecting people in Mexico, the United States and other countries around the globe, Obama said, he is proud of the work done by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Homeland Security.
"We're obviously focused on what needs to be done immediately, identifying and mitigating cases of H1N1 in the United States, pre-positioning anti-viral treatments for those who are infected and making sure that they are distributed appropriately around the country, providing clear guidance as well as the best science for state and local officials as they move forward and speak clearly to the American people, as I did the evening of the news conference about the mitigation steps that they personally can take," the president said.
Obama noted that officials are not certain that the H1N1 flu will be more severe than other seasonal flus that kill 36,000 people on average every year and cause about 200,000 hospitalizations. H1N1 may run its course like ordinary flus, he said, noting that the reason scientists are concerned is that this is a new strain.
"Americans and people around the world have not built up immunity in the same way that they've built up immunity to the seasonal flus that we're accustomed to," Obama said. "Those seasonal flus may change, mutate slightly from year to year, but they're all roughly in the same band. When you have a new strain, then potentially our immune systems can't deal with it as effectively. And there are indications that in Mexico, at least, what you saw were relatively young, healthy people die from the H1N1, rather than people whose immune system is already compromised -- older individuals, very small infants, and so forth."
Although the United States has not yet seen those same kinds of fatalities among young, healthy people, he said, White House officials want to ensure they're preparing appropriately.
"So I just want everybody to be clear that this is why this is a cause for concern, but not alarm," he said. "We are essentially ensuring that in the worst-case scenario we can manage this appropriately -- government working with businesses, individuals, and the private sector -- and are containing an outbreak so we can ultimately get through this."
Along with focusing on immediate needs, the president said, government officials also need to prepare for the long term. "Even if it turns out that the H1N1 is relatively mild on the front end, it could come back in a more virulent form during the actual flu season," Obama warned.
To this end, he said, officials are investing in the public health infrastructure and discussing the production of vaccines in anticipation of the flu season. They also are making sure federal agencies are coordinating, and that they have that they have appropriate action plans.
For example, he noted, White House officials are working with the Department of Education to provide clear guidelines for school closures. They're also working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to ensure that businesses are supportive of hourly workers who need to stay home but may be worried about losing their jobs because they don't have sick leave.
White House officials also are involved in discussions with the secretary of state and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, he said, "about how we're going to respond to potential requests from other countries for assistance in dealing with this issue.”
"Overall I'm very pleased with the progress that we've made," Obama said. "I think that those who have been on top of this have done an extraordinary job. I'm optimistic that we're going to be able to manage this effectively, but we still have more work to do, and I'm glad I've got such a great team doing it.
Obama said he wanted the American people to know their government is doing everything it can and should in the face of the outbreak. “The reason I brought this Cabinet meeting together is that we are taking this very seriously, and we will take every single step that's necessary to make sure that the American people are safe," he said.