Swine flu outbreak has health officials on edgeby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Amid reports of of a contagious flu virus spreading in Mexico, California and Texas, the Minnesota Department of Health is asking doctors to watch closely for possible cases.
Eight people in California and Texas have been sickened. Today, Mexico City shut down all of its schools and universities after at least 16 people in that city died, and more than 900 others became sick.
World health officials worried that it could mark the start of a flu pandemic.
The World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, said at least 57 people have died in the outbreak, although it wasn't yet clear if this larger number of deaths was due to swine flu.
Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say samples from the Mexico City swine flu virus are the same strain that infected the eight people in Texas and California.
The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has issued an "outbreak notice" to travelers to Mexico City and Mexico. This is to alert travelers to the risk of respiratory illness.
"We do not know whether this virus will lead to the next pandemic," said Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of CDC. "We are not at the point of declaring a pandemic, we are at the point of learning more and trying to control (the illness)."
So far there are no reports of the virus in Minnesota.
The Health Department's Doug Schultz says investigators want Minnesota doctors to send specimens to the public health lab from any patients with an influenza-like illness.
"We've also asked them to specifically give us a call and consult with us if they have anyone with an influenza-like illness who has traveled to the affected area in Texas or California or they've had contact with ill people from those areas," he said.
So far, the Health Department has not included Mexico in their travel guidelines. But Schultz says the situation is changing rapidly and the Department will update its recommendations if needed.
The World Health Organization will convene a panel of experts to decide whether the pandemic threat level should be raised.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)