Obama urges calm amid flu alert

US President Barack Obama responded to the first domestic emergency of his presidency by reassuring Americans it was “not a cause for alarm,” even as his government began urgent steps to respond to the small-but-rising number of cases.

The administration sent top health and homeland security officials out for televised briefings yesterday on what was being done.

In his speech to a meeting of scientists, Mr Obama said his administration was “closely monitoring” the situation.

“This is, obviously, a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert,” he said. “But it’s not a cause for alarm.”

New Jersey health officials have identified five probable cases of swine flu in people who recently travelled to Mexico and California.

The New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services said yesterday that all have mild forms of the flu and none has been hospitalised.

The department says it is arranging for confirmatory testing at the federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the government was preparing as if the outbreak would become the pandemic many fear, dispatching people and equipment to affected areas and stepping up information-sharing at all levels of government and with other nations. People were checked but not stopped at the borders and airports.

Richard Besser, the acting director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said his agency was investigating aggressively, looking for evidence of the disease spreading and probing for ways to control and prevent it.

Both were asked what worried Americans should do.

Use common sense, they said. Wash your hands. Stay home from work or school if you are sick.

The government also issued an advisory warning travellers to cancel any nonessential visits to Mexico.

At the White House, a swine flu update was added to the President’s daily intelligence briefing, delivered by White House homeland security adviser John Brennan.

On Capitol Hill, several panels scheduled emergency hearings for later this week.

The White House defended the administration’s ability to respond to a crisis that is coming so early in its tenure and while it still lacks a health and human services secretary, a surgeon general and a CDC director. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs took pains to note that a long-standing presidential directive gives the homeland security secretary, not the health chief, authority to coordinate federal action in such situations.

“Our response is in no way hindered or hampered,” Mr Gibbs said.

The White House also aimed to sidestep a potentially problematic diplomatic headache. Gibbs would not discuss whether Obama officials have problems with when Mexico notified the United States of the outbreak; it is particularly significant given the President’s trip to Mexico on April 16 and 17.

The first case of swine flu was reported in Mexico three days before Mr Obama’s arrival.

The White House said its medical unit asked if Mexican health officials and US Embassy medical staff had any misgivings about infectious disease and were told they did not. A White House statement said: “We have no reason to believe they withheld any information they had at the time.”

Mr Gibbs also stressed that the President’s doctors have no concern about his health now. Mr Obama has not been tested or given any pre-emptive treatment, in part because to do so could encourage others without symptoms to flood the nation’s health system, Mr Gibbs said.

The presidential spokesman also had no information about the administration’s response to the European Union’s top health official, who warned Europeans to postpone non-essential travel to parts of the United States and Mexico because of the swine flu virus.

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