May 18 (HealthDay News) -- An assistant principal at a New York City public school died Sunday night of complications from the H1N1 swine flu, becoming the fifth person in the United States to die from the disease that was first identified last month.
Health officials said Sunday that the death was not surprising, because even a normal flu season kills an estimated 36,000 Americans every year, and all signs suggest that swine flu causes mild cases of infection and the vast majority of patients recover quickly and fully.
The assistant principal, Mitchell Wiener, who worked at an intermediate school in Queens, had a history of medical problems that might have left him vulnerable to complications from swine flu. His family said he had gout, but the condition was being controlled with medication, The New York Times reported.
New York City's health commissioner, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, who was just selected Friday by President Barack Obama to lead the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called Wiener's death "terribly tragic."
"We are now seeing a rising tide of flu in many parts of New York City," Frieden said. But he added: "Nothing we've seen so far suggests that it [swine flu] is more dangerous to someone who gets it than the flu that comes every year. We should not forget that the flu that comes every year kills about 1,000 New Yorkers," the Times reported.
Hours before Wiener's death, city officials announced that five more Queens schools had been closed. Wiener's school is one of eight schools temporarily shuttered in New York City due to concerns about swine flu, CNN reported.
On Friday, the CDC was reporting 4,714 U.S. cases of swine flu in 47 states, and four deaths. For the most part, the infections continue to be mild -- similar to seasonal flu -- and recovery is fairly quick.
The World Health Organization on Monday was reporting 8,480 diagnosed cases in 39 countries, including at least 75 deaths, mostly in Mexico, believed to be the source of the outbreak that began last month.
Testing has found that the swine flu virus remains susceptible to two common antiviral drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza, according to the CDC.
The swine flu is a highly unusual mix of swine, bird and human flu viruses. Experts worry that, if the new flu virus mutates, people would have limited immunity to fight the infection.
The CDC is concerned with what will happen as this new virus moves into the Southern Hemisphere, where the flu season is about to start. The agency is also preparing for the virus' likely return in the fall to the Northern Hemisphere.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization opened its annual meeting Monday in Geneva, Switzerland, with swine flu and the possibility of a vaccine dominating the agenda, the Associated Press reported.
The WHO's director-general, Dr. Margaret Chan, was expected to review experts' recommendations on which companies should produce a vaccine, how much they should make and how it could best be distributed, the news service said.
One factor complicating a decision is that most flu vaccine companies can only make limited amounts of both seasonal flu vaccine and pandemic vaccine, such as that needed for swine flu, and not at the same time. The producers also can't make large quantities of both types of vaccine because that would exceed manufacturing capacity, the AP said.
The WHO estimates up to 2 billion doses of swine flu vaccine could be produced yearly, though the first batches would not be available for four to six months.
On Friday, U.S. health officials said the official tally of confirmed U.S. swine flu cases had topped 4,700, but the true number of infections could be higher than 100,000 nationwide.
Dr. Daniel Jernigan, of the CDC's Influenza Division, said during an afternoon teleconference that "estimates of the confirmed and probable cases in the United States is probably not the best indicator of transmission at this point. The outbreak is not localized, but is spreading and appears to be expanding throughout the United States. This is an ongoing public health threat."
It's difficult to estimate the number of people who may be infected with swine flu, Jernigan said, "but if we had to make an estimate, I would say that the amount of activity we are seeing with our influenza-like illness network is probably upwards of 100,000."
Jernigan said there also seemed to be more cases of flu generally in the United States -- both the seasonal and the new H1N1 swine flu -- than is usually seen at this time of the year. "There are 22 U.S. states that are reporting widespread or regional influenza activity, which is something that we would not expect at this time," he said.
Also Friday, the CDC lifted its general warning that Americans avoid non-essential travel to Mexico. Instead, the warning has been downgraded to a "precaution" that now advises people who might be at high risk for complications from the flu to reconsider travel to Mexico.
SOURCES: May 15, 2009, teleconference with Daniel Jernigan, M.D., Influenza Division, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Associated Press; The New York Times; CNN