Queens, NY – Students sickened at a Queens school probably have the dreaded swine flu that has killed dozens in Mexico and is threatening to erupt into a global pandemic, officials said Saturday.
Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said preliminary tests suggest the new bug raced through St. Francis Preparatory School in Fresh Meadows, where 200 students fell ill last week.
“It is likely swine flu,” Frieden said after nine specimens were tested.
Eight were suspicious for swine flu but more tests are needed to confirm that and determine if they match the strain that has sowed panic in Mexico.
The St. Francis students have “mild” symptoms of the virus – an unusual, fast-evolving mix of pig, human and bird flu, Frieden said.
Medical sleuths were also investigating whether children at a Bronx day care are infected. Two Manhattan families contacted health officials, saying they just returned from Mexico and may have it.
“We are going to have to look at this minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day,” Frieden said. “We are very concerned about what may happen.”
The new strain of the swine flu has killed up to 68 people and infected more than 1,000 in Mexico, and sickened 10 in California, Texas and Kansas.
Health authorities issued chilling warnings Saturday about the potential for the virus to gallop unchecked across the globe.
The World Health Organization declared the outbreak an international “public health emergency.”
“This virus has clearly a pandemic potential,” WHO Director General Margaret Chan said at an emergency meeting of flu experts.
CDC researchers are working on a vaccine but that could take months, and the virus appears to be resistant to the seasonal flu vaccine.
“It is clear that this is widespread,” Dr. Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
“And that is why we have let you know that we cannot contain the spread of this virus.”
Some 200 students at St. Francis fell ill with fever, nausea, dizziness, fatigue and aches and were sent home Thursday and Friday.
Parents said several students spent spring break in Mexico, leading to speculation one brought the virus home.
Panicked families converged yesterday on a special screening center set up at Schneider Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park.
“I don’t know if there is an iuncubation period, if I am contaminated,” said Elaine Caporaso, 44, there with her son, Eddie, 18, a senior with a fever and cough.
“I don’t want my family to get sick and I don’t want to get anybody else sick.”
Vincent Johnson, 44, was angry that St. Francis officials didn’t shut the school down immediately.
“We were first told that it was just a virus. Now I find out that it’s serious,” he said as son Jonathan Henderson, 14, waited to be screened.
The St. Francis specimens are being tested by the CDC and final results are expected today.
If it is confirmed as swine flu and it does spread further through the city, Frieden insisted officials are “well-prepared.”
Hospitals are on alert and there is plenty of Tamiflu and Relenza, flu-fighting drugs that seem to be effective, in the city.
He urged that otherwise healthy people who have flu symptoms stay home, but those with underlying health conditions like diabetes seek medical attention.
The last major outbreak of swine flu in the New York area was in 1976 at Fort Dix, N.J., which killed two people.