The California Department of Public Health began distributing anti-viral drugs to anxious counties on Wednesday, a precaution against a new strain of influenza that is now just one step short of being categorized as a global pandemic.

Half of the state’s 58 counties have requested supplies of the drugs, and state health officials reassured the public that there are enough doses for 9 million people, about a fourth of the state’s population, should the swine flu outbreak worsen.

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Some drugstores reported temporary shortages of Tamiflu and Relenza, which have been shown to reduce flu symptoms.

A run on anti-viral drugs is unusual for this time of year, when seasonal flus are usually on the wane and when pharmacies are slower to restock supplies because of lower demand.

“They weren’t anticipating a need to stock up, that’s for sure,” said Dr. Bonnie Sorensen, the state’s deputy health director.

State officials urged prudence among doctors and asked the public to resist temptation to take anti-virals in hopes of warding off infection.

California has an allotment of 5.3 million courses of the anti-viral drugs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a fourth of which is already on its way, said Ken August, a state Health Department spokesman.

The CDC has a stockpile of 50 million treatments and is making a fourth of it available to states. In addition, California has its own stockpile of 3.7 million courses. A course is typically enough to treat one patient for a week.

“There will never be enough Tamiflu if we have a catastrophe,” said Dr. Glennah Trochet, Sacramento County’s public health officer.

Sacramento County has received 103,000 courses of Tamiflu from California’s cache of the anti-viral medication, and 13,440 courses of Relenza, according to Kerry Shearer, spokesman for Sacramento County’s Public Health Department.

The drugs will be partly reserved for health workers and other first responders who might be exposed to swine flu, Trochet said.

The number of confirmed and probable cases of swine flu grew in California and across the nation. The death of an toddler in Texas is believed to be the first in the United States blamed on the mysterious new strain of swine influenza that has killed scores in Mexico.

A 31-year-old Tracy woman was among the 22 new probable cases reported Wednesday.

As of Wednesday, Sacramento County’s cases remained at one confirmed and three probable cases of swine flu.

The World Health Organization increased the global pandemic alert status to Phase 5, a pre-pandemic stage that indicates that one is imminent.

The WHO’s action is “not triggering any additional activities on our part,” Dr. Mark Horton, the state’s chief health officer, said Wednesday. A strike team of of more than 100 state health officials is working in 12-hour shifts to deal with the unfolding emergency. “We feel we’re doing everything necessary at this time.”

State health officials are recommending, however, that schools with confirmed cases or “highly suspected cases” of the swine flu be voluntarily closed for at least a week.

To help contain further outbreaks, health officials reiterated their call for personal responsibility, including better personal hygiene such as frequent hand washing, using tissues or coughing and sneezing into a bent elbow.

Those who fall ill should remain home from school or work and consult a physician.

Demand for Tamiflu and Relenza at pharmacies has spiked in recent days, causing some stores to run low on supplies.

“We have seen a significant increase in prescriptions for Tamiflu and Relenza,” as well as soaps, hand sanitizers and other disinfectants, said Robert Elfinger, a spokesman for Walgreens drugstores.

“We’re well-stocked in all supplies that the CDC recommends for preventing and treating swine flu,” Elfinger said.

Dr. Marcus Ravnan, an associate professor of infectious disease at the University of the Pacific’s School of Pharmacy, says that in times of anxiety over public health, it’s not unusual for people to hoard medication.

“It’s more of a panic than a thought process … If you don’t have it, you don’t have it,” Ravnan said.

“They think they are a cure for this kind of a flu phenomenon, when in fact these drugs by no means clear the virus from the body,” he added.




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