Mexican boy visiting Texas first U.S. swine flu death

Wednesday, April 29, 2009 | 7:31 p.m. CDT

HOUSTON — A Mexico City toddler on a family trip to visit relatives spent his last three weeks critically ill in Texas hospitals before becoming the first U.S. death from the swine flu. The virus is suspected of killing more than 150 people and sickening more than 2,400 in Mexico.

The 23-month-old boy arrived in the border city of Brownsville, population 140,000, with "underlying health issues" April 4 and developed flu symptoms four days later, the Texas Department of State Health Services said. He was taken to a Brownsville hospital April 13 and transferred the following day to Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, where he died Monday night.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control confirmed early Wednesday he had been infected with the swine flu virus.

Health officials insisted the child posed no contagion threat to Houston. He had no contact with other patients at Texas Children's Hospital and none of the staff was exposed, said Jeffrey Starke, the hospital's director of infectious disease.

This case "shouldn't trigger any undue alarm in the community," Starke told a news conference. "The child did not acquire the virus in Houston, Texas."

State's health director David Lackey called it "highly likely" the boy contracted the disease in Mexico before his trip to Brownsville. None of his family has shown any symptoms.

Officials refused to release any further information about the boy or his family, including any details on his other health issues, citing privacy laws.

Starke said the child was "critically ill the entire time the child was under our care," and he was transferred to Houston because the hospital in Brownsville couldn't provide the kind of care he needed.

Although he wasn't initially tagged as a swine flu case, Starke said concern grew over the last several days as news of the virus intensified.

The boy is one of 16 confirmed swine flu cases in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry has issued a disaster declaration and many school districts across the state have shut down out of fear of the virus. Texas officials also postponed all high school athletic and academic competitions until May 11, suspending the baseball season and eliminating the regional track championships.

In Lubbock, city health spokeswoman Beckie Brawley said 15 samples were being tested for possible swine flu. Starke said several children in Houston also were being tested.

Dallas health officials said the three confirmed north Texas cases are in Dallas and the suburbs of Richardson and Mesquite. Four of 11 other probable cases are people connected to the three confirmed patients. None of the 11 have recently been to Mexico or know people who have.

"We don't know how these cases are being transmitted," said Dallas county health director John Carlo said. "You have to wonder where these cases are in fact getting sick from."

In Austin, Perry and his top emergency management officials assured that Texas has a detailed plan in place to respond.

"We've been executing our pandemic flu plan ever since we got word of the initial cases," Perry said.

The disaster declaration covers the whole state. It moves Texas into a higher state of alert and makes certain resources available, such as 25 percent of Texas' CDC allotment of antiviral doses, or 850,000 doses.

That's in addition to the 840,000 doses Texas purchased after 2007 legislative session.

As for future action, Perry said closing the border is an option, but he doesn't want to play a "what-if game."

"There's no need to panic," Perry said. "I urge our citizens to act responsibly in the course of this situation. Heed the advice of local and state health officials."

The cause of the boy's death was pneumonia caused by the flu virus, Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos said.

The boy would not have been infectious when he flew from Mexico City to Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, according to state health officials.

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.

Lakey said tracking the illness is complex because seasonal flu is still ongoing, he said. He urged people to stay home if they are sick and to use antiviral medication if necessary, which is a treatment for the course of the illness.

"This is a serious public health threat, but we believe our approach here in Texas is prudent, it's not panic," Lakey said.

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