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First swine flu death reported in US, Obama urges precautions

A Mexican toddler became the first person to die in the United States of swine flu as President Barack Obama Wednesday warned that "utmost precautions" were needed to contain the spreading outbreak.

world Updated: Apr 29, 2009 20:32 IST

A Mexican toddler became the first person to die in the United States of swine flu as President Barack Obama Wednesday warned that "utmost precautions" were needed to contain the spreading outbreak.

The 23-month-old child, who died in hospital in Houston, Texas, became the first confirmed death in the United States as well as the first outside the disease epicenter in Mexico.

"As a parent and a pediatrician, my heart goes out to the family," Richard Besser, the acting director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said on CNN.

"But given what we've seen in Mexico, we have expected that we would see more severe infections and that we would see deaths," he said.

State officials said the toddler, whose identity and gender were not released, had been admitted to hospital in the border town of Brownsville on April 13 and transferred to Houston the next day.

The child "became quite ill rather rapidly," said Houston's director of medical services David Persse. He told reporters that "unfortunately, in spite of the best efforts, the child succumbed to the illness."

The toddler's relatives were all free of flu symptoms, but were receiving precautionary medical care, he added.

US health authorities have confirmed at least 65 confirmed cases of the H1N1 flu which is believed to have killed 159 people in Mexico. Updated figures from the CDC were due out shortly.

Most of the US cases have been relatively mild, with only a handful of sufferers requiring hospital treatment. Health authorities stress that roughly 35,000 people die annually in a regular US influenza season.

Nevertheless, Obama urged schools with suspected swine flu cases to close and called on local officials to be vigilant in tracking suspected infections, after declaring a public health emergency at the weekend.

"This is obviously a serious situation, serious enough to take the utmost precautions," the president said at the White House, adding that "more extensive steps" may be required.

"Every American should know that the federal government is prepared to do whatever is necessary to control the impact of this virus," he said, after requesting emergency funding of 1.5 billion dollars from Congress.

US infections were spread across six states as of early Wednesday, with most cases centered on a private school in New York City, affecting students who had recently visited Mexico. California has declared its own health emergency.

A total of 37 Marines were under observation at a base in southern California after one of their comrades was suspected to have fallen ill with swine flu.

The affected Marine and his roommate are in quarantine, camp commandant General James Conway told reporters.

US pig farmers were reeling as countries worldwide imposed bans on exports of North American pork, although officials insisted there was no risk of contracting swine flu from eating the meat.

Several countries have suspended flights to Mexico, and France said Wednesday it would ask the European Union to follow suit.

However, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano forcefully told lawmakers that closing US borders would be an ineffective and expensive way to try to contain the deadly outbreak.

"Closing the border would yield only very marginal benefits. At the same time, closing the border has very high costs," she told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in prepared testimony.

"The strain of the virus that was first detected in Mexico is already present throughout the United States, and there is no realistic opportunity to contain the virus through border closures, so our focus must now be on mitigating the virus," said Napolitano.