CDC: 'Encouraging Signs' H1N1 Less Deadly Than Past Pandemics

In an interview on "This Week" Sunday morning, the CDC director said there are "encouraging signs" the H1N1 virus spreading across the nation is less potent and less deadly than past pandemics.

"What I can say is that we're seeing encouraging signs, and that's --that makes us all very happy," said Richard Besser, acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"What we do when we get a virus, we look to see if it relates to any other viruses. And then we look for things that are called virulence factors. Those things that in the past have been linked to more severe disease. And, what we've found is that we're not seeing the factors that were associated with the 1918 pandemic, we're not seeing the factors that are, were associated with other  H1N1 viruses and that's encouraging," he said. 

Despite the encouraging signs, however, Besser couldn't say whether the H1N1 virus won't strike hard when full season begins in the Fall.

"We can't say that," Besser said, "Every virus is new. And what it will do is different. And so you're hitting a critical point: what will happen this spring and summer?And I don't think it's time to let our guard down. I think we have to continue to be aggressive in an uncertain situation, and that's what we're doing," he said.

Besser said the CDC is trying to find out why the H1N1 virus in the U.S. appear to be so different from the one that's killed so many in Mexico, and quickly how the virus is spreading across the nation.

It is spreading, it's spreading quite easily," Besser told me. "We expect that today we'll be confirming cases in far more states."

"The word out of New York City where they had a school cluster is that it spread very rapidly through that school, but what they were seeing is disease that's not that severe. And when it transmitted to people in the families, they were seeing disease that's not that severe, and that's encouraging," he said.

Newly confirmed Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on "This Week" that the government is simultaneously ramping up production of seasonal flu vaccines and in the process of developing a vaccine for this latest  H1N1 virus.

"The good news is we're in the right seasonal time. We can accelerate the seasonal flu vaccine which we're doing right now, to be prepared and ready for what we know will hit this Fall and winter," Sebelius said, "At the same time we are in the stages of growing the virus, testing it, and we can be ready to do both simultaneously."

She credited the Bush administration for laying the groundwork for a national pandemic flu strategy.

"I don't think there's any question that the planning that's been done in the last five years has been extraordinarily helpful," Sebelius said, "States are much more prepared than they were four and five years ago with emergency plans. Private sector has been engaged."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano argued schools and workplaces need to use common sense.  If you're sick with the flu, stay home, she said. 

"Schools you give guidance on because that's really a primary place where disease gets passed on one to the next," she said. "But we don't want to shut down the [private sector] production capacity of the country for flu when that's not necessary."

"Every business, every business owner has a different way of handling this," Napolitano said, "the number one thing is for people who are sick, not to go to work Once they don't go to work, we can begin to contain the spread of the virus."

I asked Napolitano about charges this week, in particular from radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, that the media and government are over hyping the H1N1 flu threat.

"No, not at all," she said, "When you think about where we were a week ago or ten days ago, we had a new strain of flu, we didn't really know what its lethality  was going to be, we didn't know how quickly it was going to move because you can't get behind flu, once you get behind you can't catch up. You have to get ahead of it."

--George Stephanopoulos

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