Two men from Hillsborough County and one from Hernando County have died from swine flu, marking the Tampa Bay area's first fatalities from the virus.
The Hillsborough cases involved 44- and 49-year-old men, both of whom had underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk of complications from flu, said Health Department spokesman Steve Huard.
The Hernando man was 40. It's uncertain whether he had pre-existing conditions that may have contributed to his death, said Health Department spokeswoman Nina Mattei.
The Hernando man died July 16, and the Hillsborough men both died July 19. Health officials in both counties said they received confirmation Wednesday that the deaths were caused by swine flu. Officials did not release the men's names or other information about them.
The fatalities are the latest evidence that swine flu continues to spread in great numbers here and elsewhere, even during the warm summer months, which are traditionally a slow period for the spread of flu viruses.
Though the large majority of cases have been mild, health officials hope the public is taking notice that the effects can be severe, especially in people with conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease.
"We're taking this virus very seriously," said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who added that complacency among the public "is a major concern."
Nearly 3,000 people in Florida have been diagnosed with swine flu since the virus first emerged in the spring and at least 25 have died from it — all in the past month. Nationally, there have been more than 40,000 reported cases and 260 deaths, but health officials estimate at least 1 million Americans have contracted the virus.
And on Thursday, a top state medical official said that 5 million Floridians could contract swine flu within a year if the virus follows the pattern of previous pandemics.
The acting state epidemiologist, Dr. Richard Hopkins, said pandemics are deadly because so many people get sick, noting that 30 to 40 percent of the population was infected in previous outbreaks.
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Around Tampa Bay, swine flu cases continue to emerge from summer camps and other places where large numbers of children congregate.
In Pinellas County, a camper at the Southwest Recreation Complex in Largo has contracted swine flu and is being treated at home, a complex administrator confirmed Thursday.
Swine flu cases also have been reported at camps in St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs.
Hillsborough schools on Wednesday reported two confirmed cases at a summer reading camp at Egypt Lake Elementary. The infected students were not in class this week, district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.
While some camps around the country are taking more aggressive measures to combat swine flu — such as quarantine periods for infected children at sleep-away camps — many who oversee camps locally say they continue to follow standard guidance from area health departments.
The Pinellas County parks department, which runs camps at places such as Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center, advises children to wash their hands frequently and instructs parents to keep kids home if they are sick, said county spokesman Tom Iovino.
In Largo, Mary Nolen, assistant director for Largo recreation, parks and arts, said custodial crews have sanitized the recreation complex in response to the confirmed swine flu case.
In Hillsborough County, where parks department summer camps serve thousands of children, spokesman John Brill said the programs are always careful to encourage good hygiene. They've had no reported cases of swine flu, Brill said.
In Hernando County, recent swine flu cases have not prompted officials to change the routine at local recreational camps, parks and recreation director Pat Fagan said.
But he added that more proactive measures might be necessary if cases climb.
"It's something we definitely need to take a look at," Fagan said.
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As was the case in the spring, swine flu continues to afflict mostly young people — a departure from seasonal flu, which strikes the elderly in greater numbers.
With that in mind, preparations are under way for the start of the school year, when health officials anticipate the number of swine flu cases to rise, perhaps dramatically.
Huard, of Hillsborough, said the Health Department and school district have been in regular contact. School district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said schools will have posters up stressing the importance of hand washing and other preventive measures.
Health officials also are preparing to educate the public about flu vaccines. It's possible that children and adults will be encouraged to be vaccinated for both swine flu and seasonal flu this fall. Currently, the swine flu vaccine is in the testing stages, but government officials said Thursday that the United States expects to have 160 million doses of swine flu vaccine available sometime in October.
Times staff writer Keith Niebuhr contributed to this report. Richard Martin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330.