Updated: U.S. swine flu cases surged to nearly 100 - KTTC Rochester, Austin, Mason City News, Weather and Sports

Updated: U.S. swine flu cases surged to nearly 100

WASHINGTON (NBC) -- Virulent swine flu spread to 11 U.S. states from coast to coast Wednesday and swept deeper into Europe, extending its global reach as President Barack Obama mourned the first U.S. death, a Mexican toddler who had traveled with his family to Texas. Total American cases surged to nearly 100.

The World Health Organization said Wednesday the swine flu outbreak shows no evidence of slowing down and is moving closer to becoming a pandemic. WHO flu chief Dr. Keiji Fukuda told reporters that developments in the disease are moving the agency closer to raising its pandemic alert to phase 5, which indicates widespread human-to-human transmission, from its current level of 4.

Phase 6 is the highest in the scale and is for a full-scale pandemic.

In Illinois, school officials have shut down a Chicago elementary school after a child was reported with a probable case of swine flu.

And in central Minnesota, health officials are also reporting a probable case at a school. Authorities have closed that school and another one as a precaution.

Texas state health officials said the boy would not have been infectious when he flew from Mexico City to Matamoras, across the border from Brownsville. None of his close contacts have developed symptoms.

Carol Wittman, a spokeswoman for Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, would not confirm that the boy was a patient there, but said the hospital planned a news conference Wednesday afternoon and would issue a statement soon.

Health officials in Brownsville are trying to trace his family's trip to find out how long they were in the area, who they visited and how many people were in the group, Cascos said.

The boy's family members "are healthy and well," Houston's health director, Dr. David Persse, said at a Wednesday news conference.

Dr. Richard Besser, acting head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the confirmation of the first U.S. death tragic, but said it's too soon to say just how fast the swine flu virus is spreading.

"Even though we've been expecting this, it is very, very sad," Besser said Wednesday of the infant's death. "As a pediatrician and a parent, my heart goes out to the family."

Children, especially those younger than age 5, are particularly vulnerable to flu and its complications, and every year children die from seasonal flu.

According to the CDC, more than 20,000 children younger than age 5 are hospitalized every year because of seasonal flu. In the 2007-08 flu season, the CDC received reports that 86 children nationwide died from flu complications.

As of April 18, CDC had received reports of 55 seasonal flu-related deaths in children during the current seasonal flu season.

States receiving Tamiflu
Meanwhile, the first shipments of the drug Tamiflu from the federal stockpile arrived in New York state, New York City and Indiana Wednesday morning, and all states will get their share by Sunday, the government said.

As a precaution, the government has decided to ship to the states enough medication to treat 11 million people - just in case the new swine flu takes off. Besser said no states are having any shortages - there's plenty in regular pharmacies for now.

In Texas, the governor has issued a disaster declaration for the entire state. Sixteen cases have been reported there, including the first victim to die of the new strain outside Mexico. Texas is also postponing all public high school athletic competition until May 11.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Wednesday that dealing with the swine flu virus will be "a marathon, not a sprint" and individual citizens have a responsibility to help.

Appearing before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Napolitano, who is the Obama administration's lead official on the federal disaster response, said that in important respects, state and local authorities represent the "first responder" role in the widening health emergency. She said some 40 states are involved in close coordination and consultation with the federal government.

"There is a lot we don't yet know about this outbreak. But at the same time we have been preparing as if we are facing a true pandemic, even though we don't know the ultimate scope of what will occur," Napolitano said.

Canada, Austria, New Zealand, Israel, Spain, Britain and Germany also have reported cases of swine flu sickness. Deaths reported so far have been limited to Mexico, and now the U.S.

Vaccine months away
As the U.S. grappled with the widening health crisis, Besser went from network to network Wednesday morning to give an update on what the Obama administration is doing. He said authorities essentially are still "trying to learn more about this strain of the flu."

"It's very important that people take their concern and channel it into action," Besser said, adding that "it is crucial that people understand what they need to do if symptoms appear.

"I don't think it (the reported death in Texas) indicates any change in the strain," he said. "We see with any flu virus a spectrum of disease symptoms."

Asked why the problem seems so much more severe in Mexico, Besser said U.S. officials "have teams on the ground, a tri-national team in Mexico, working with Canada and Mexico, to try and understand those differences, because they can be helpful as we plan and implement our control strategies."

The world has no vaccine to prevent infection but U.S. health officials aim to have a key ingredient for one ready in early May, the big step that vaccine manufacturers are awaiting. But even if the WHO ordered up emergency vaccine supplies - and that decision hasn't been made yet - it would take at least two more months to produce the initial shots needed for human safety testing.

"We're working together at 100 miles an hour to get material that will be useful," Dr. Jesse Goodman, who oversees the Food and Drug Administration's swine flu work, told The Associated Press.

The U.S. is shipping to states not only enough anti-flu medication for 11 million people, but also masks, hospital supplies and flu test kits. President Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.5 billion in emergency funds to help build more drug stockpiles and monitor future cases, as well as help international efforts to avoid a full-fledged pandemic.

Authorities sought to keep the crisis in context: Flu deaths are common around the world. In the U.S. alone, the CDC says about 36,000 people a year die of flu-related causes. Still, the CDC calls the new strain a combination of pig, bird and human viruses for which people may have limited natural immunity.

Hence the need for a vaccine. Using samples of the flu taken from people who fell ill in Mexico and the U.S., scientists are engineering a strain that could trigger the immune system without causing illness. The hope is to get that ingredient - called a "reference strain" in vaccine jargon - to manufacturers around the second week of May, so they can begin their own laborious production work, said CDC's Dr. Ruben Donis, who is leading that effort.

Vaccine manufacturers are just beginning production for next winter's regular influenza vaccine, which protects against three human flu strains. The WHO wants them to stay with that course for now - it won't call for mass production of a swine flu vaccine unless the outbreak worsens globally. But sometimes new flu strains pop up briefly at the end of one flu season and go away only to re-emerge the next fall, and at the very least there should be a vaccine in time for next winter's flu season, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health's infectious diseases chief, said Tuesday.

"Right now it's moving very rapidly," he said of the vaccine development.

NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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