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CDC Report Shows Flu Numbers Declining; Obama and Karzai Meet about U.S. Drawdown; Russia, Adoption Ban Starts in 2014; Interview with Bill Richardson; Ms. D.C. Plans Preventative Mastectomy

Aired January 11, 2013 - 11:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Carol. Hi, everybody, nice to have you with us. Let's get right to it.

This is a bad year for the flu. But is the worst of it behind us now? We have some brand-new facts and brand-new figures for you this hour and they are important.

In just two hours also the Afghan and U.S. Presidents are going to face reporters after some pretty talk tough -- some pretty tough talking at the White House.

At issue, life after war.

And also Miss D.C., stunning, and hoping to win Miss America tomorrow night in Vegas. Either way, her life is at a major turning point. She's giving up a piece of her anatomy in hopes that she will beat breast cancer, breast cancer that she does not even have.


BANFIELD: We're going to start, though, with the flu. Despite the warnings that we're facing an epidemic at this point, the situation across this country may actually be starting to improve. The CDC just releasing brand-new numbers showing that those numbers that have been very high are declining in parts of the country, and maybe it's your part of the country.


BANFIELD (voice-over): It is still a dangerous situation, though, just look at the map. The widespread activity has now spread to 47 states. The CDC's latest count shows that 20 children have now died across the U.S.A., and if that is not bad enough --


BANFIELD: -- there are a few other less talked-about illnesses that are also sending a lot of people to the emergency room, those illnesses including whooping cough and a very nasty stomach bug, in fact, a norovirus.

Our senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, is in Ft. Worth, Texas, and she's been tracking all three of these illnesses. I want to start with the most serious and the one creating the most headlines, this flu.

So we are seeing this slowdown that I just mentioned but the numbers are still high. Put it in perspective for me, if you can, today, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH COHEN, SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know what, Ashleigh, if you look overall at the whole country, the numbers have gone down slightly, the amount of flu activity.

However, you know what, you really don't care so much about what the flu's like halfway across the country. You care about what it's like where you live.

So, in some parts of the country, particularly in the Southeast, the numbers are going down. In other parts they're going up. This is very classic of a flu season. These numbers kind of go up and down.

But what -- you know, what we're hoping is that this is sort of the beginning of flu overall going down. Still lots of flu out there. Still get a vaccine if you haven't gotten one already.

BANFIELD: And is this stuff sort of not, you know, overstated about getting the vaccine this week? Now we're hearing about other illnesses and I'm not so sure that you can get whooping cough -- or vaccines for some of them, but you can for whooping cough and now we're hearing about the worst outbreak of whooping cough in almost 60 years. Why?

COHEN: You know, it really is terrible. Whooping cough is a terrible disease that can last for a very long time.

Here's what happened, about 10 years ago they decided to change the vaccine. The old one worked well, but it was also giving -- having some bad reactions, some bad side effects. So they decided to take it off the market. The new one works but it doesn't work for as long a period of time; it wears off and that's why, 10 years later, we're starting to see these huge numbers.

BANFIELD: And then what about this other norovirus? I've heard a couple of people saying they figured they had food poisoning, that it was extraordinarily violent, more so than any of the other sort of tummyaches that we tend to get on a regular basis. What's the story with the norovirus outbreak?

COHEN: Right, tummyache would be a huge euphemism for this virus; it really gives people terrible gastrointestinal illness, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting; it's just awful.

So what happened here is that there's not a particularly virulent strain out there, it's a new strain, it's called Sydney 2012 because it was first identified in 2012 in Sydney, Australia. And so none of us have seen this before. Your immune systems don't know what to do with it so that's why you're seeing a lot of people get sick.

BANFIELD: What should we do if our children get it, if the elderly get it or, you know, just an able-bodied American, what do you? COHEN: Right, if you are a healthy adult, you know, it's going to be unpleasant; it's not going to be fun. But you're going to survive. You're going to be all right. If we're talking about the very old, the very young, there might be more concerns there. Overall you want to make sure that you don't get dehydrated. That's what's really important here.

BANFIELD: All right, Elizabeth Cohen, it's been a busy week for you and it doesn't seem to be over yet. Thank you for that.

Elizabeth Cohen is our chief medical correspondent. And also Sanjay Gupta is going to join me later on in this hour to talk about some of the new flu information, the report from the CDC and then also clear up some of the confusion you may have over getting a flu shot. You may have chosen not to get one perhaps for the wrong reasons and we'll let you know about all of that coming up.

And then of course, here we are in 2013. We're barely under way, but the focus of the White House today is late 2014 and beyond, because that's when the U.S. troops and their NATO comrades are due to be gone from Afghanistan, more or less to be gone.

And that little phrase "more or less" is being hashed out face-to-face right now by these two men, President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. And these two men don't always see eye to eye on those issues and more.

CNN's Dan Lothian is watching this.

Dan, of course, we're always interested in what they have to say and there's a news conference that's scheduled for about 1:15 Eastern time, but are we expecting any big announcements or pronouncements?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we were told by White House aides not to expect any big breakthroughs to come from this meeting. It is a chance, as you pointed out, for both of these leaders to sit down and talk about what happens next after 2014, the political, the economic, the security transition.

Some have suggested, as you said, that they should bring that number down to zero, so zero troops on the ground there after 2014.

Leon Panetta, the Defense Secretary, is saying that that would be a bad idea. What's most likely is there will be a few thousand troops on the ground there in Afghanistan after 2014 to help in the transition. There's big concern as to whether or not the Afghan forces are prepared, are ready, to handle their own security.

So that will be one of the big issues that will be discussed during that face-to-face meeting, the bilateral meeting. They'll also have a lunch meeting, a working lunch meeting, and then that press conference that you pointed out will be taking place this afternoon.

BANFIELD: You know, when the White House just happens to float the idea of zero troops, people get excited. And for the right or wrong reasons, they get excited across this country. And now we have a big new national security team in place.

Do we have a very solid concept of how these three new faces, Chuck Hagel, John Kerry and John Brennan, you know, as a triumvirate, how do they feel about the concept of walking away from Afghanistan? We've done it before; it didn't go so well.

LOTHIAN: That's correct. And I think it's, you know, we'll have to wait and see exactly the positions that these new -- if, in fact, they do get confirmed -- how they will view this transition.

Our understanding is when you look at the Defense Department -- and someone like Mr. Hagel would most likely be leaning towards what we're seeing with the president, more aggressive in drawdown -- drawing down the troops in Afghanistan.

You know, we have to look back to the president during both of his campaigns made the promise of ending the war, first of all in the first campaign in Iraq, and drawing down the troops in the war -- winding down the war in Afghanistan.

In his second campaign he focused on that again, winding down the war in Afghanistan. And so this is, in many ways, the president delivering on that promise. But as we've been talking about, how quickly it should happen, how aggressive it should be is the big issue that will be discussed here today and continue to be discussed in the coming months.

BANFIELD: All right, Dan Lothian live for us at the White House, thank you.

And again, I want to remind our viewers that President Obama and President Karzai are going to face off against reporters in a little over two hours from now, 1:15 Eastern time. And these are after back- to-back meetings and a working lunch as well. Let's see if they make any big news. If they do, they're certainly going to make it right here on CNN.



BANFIELD (voice-over): And speaking of next year, here is some news that some Americans are certainly waiting to hear and hoping to hear.

The adoptions of Russian children are not completely off the books right now. Moscow now says that the full ban on adoptions will not take effect until 2014. You might recall that the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, had approved that ban last month and it was effectively supposed to start this month.

But now President Putin's spokesman said the agreement with Washington has not expired. The State Department said the termination clause extends this agreement now for one year, but there are still a lot of kinks to be worked out.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BANFIELD: When you mention North Korea, there are a couple of things that might come to mind --


BANFIELD (voice-over): -- for instance, a closed country right out of the pages of George Orwell's novel "1984;" a dangerously unpredictable government, one that now has nuclear weapons and ordinarily people just barely getting enough to eat. Those are the images that are invoked. And visits by Westerners are rare.

Not necessarily this Westerner, though, on the left. That's former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, along with Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. They have just returned from North Korea.


BANFIELD: And Governor Richardson is kind enough to join me live now from Washington.

Governor, thanks for taking the time. I've been looking forward to have a chance to debrief you on your visit, but I was worried there wouldn't be enough to debrief about. It doesn't feel like there was a whole lot that you got to do while you were there.

Have I mischaracterized it?

BILL RICHARDSON, FORMER GOVERNOR OF NEW MEXICO: Well, we did three important things. One, we sent a very strong message from Americans that don't talk to North Koreans on a variety of subjects that, one, cool it on the missile developments, moratorium on nuclear testing.

Number two, we pushed very hard for the American Kenneth BAE, who is there in prison, to be treated fairly and get consular access.

And, third, probably the most important message was the Internet from Eric Schmidt, the head of Google -- we weren't traveling as a Google team -- to open up access to the Internet, to move forward with more cell phone service.

And we talked to students. We talked to software engineers, to teachers, to ordinary people. So I think it was a very valuable visit, because we don't talk to the North Koreans. I've negotiated with them for about 15 years successfully on a variety of fronts.

They invited me. We went on a private humanitarian mission. We were only there two days, but we delivered our messages, Ashleigh. I think it was very well worth the trip.

BANFIELD: And all those three things that you just listed sound fantastic, but for two small details and those details are this: you were not there officially, you were there privately, so this was not a U.S. government initiative nor was it even sanctioned nor, really, it seems, appreciated by the State Department.

And on the second side of it, you didn't really get to meet with the higher-level ministers and certainly not Kim Jong-un.

So that's why I asked if you think that you really had effective meetings. They may have felt good, but do you think they were effective?

RICHARDSON: Well, they were effective. We met three times with the foreign ministry officials, the highest-level person, the nuclear negotiator, Vice Minister Ri, he's the guy that deals with the nuclear issues with the U.S. We met with him and his staff three times, very intensive, tough meetings.

We met with their top scientists. We met with their top software engineers. We visited some of their schools. We sent very strong messages.

So, no, nobody -- I don't think anybody has ever met Kim Jong-un that's from a foreign delegation, maybe heads of state. But you've got a sense of the fact that he wants to move away now that he successfully launched this missile, I think he wants to move away into more engagement, into more economic reforms.

But, again, even though I've been there so many times, nobody's an expert, but it's valuable to send those messages.

BANFIELD: It may be valuable to send those messages. Others feel it's not and messages went the opposite way. In fact, listen, from your time on Capitol Hill, your time as a Cabinet secretary, I know that you know John McCain well, and I know that you know about his tweet that he sent out, you know, either just before or during your mission.

He said, "Richardson and Schmidt arrive in North Korea today -- Lenin used to call them 'useful idiots'."

I want to characterize that for a moment. Lenin actually didn't. It's been mischaracterized. Lenin is often quoted as having said that, but the Library of Congress can't find anywhere where Lenin has a record of having said that.

So it might be a mistake on his part but you know darn well what he meant and that is he felt you were being used as a tool for North Korean propaganda.

Is he wrong?

RICHARDSON: He is wrong. And that surprises me about John McCain. I've known him '82 -- since 1982 -- we were both elected to the Congress together -- and it's surprising me that he makes a comment like that that is personal.

Look, we weren't used. We sent valuable messages. Are we used by being photographed by North Korean students, by advancing the Internet, by saying your nuclear development, your missile tests are not playing well, that you need to engage, that you need to be less isolated, that you need to talk to South Korea, you need to talk to China? I don't believe that we were used. And the Internet message, for a country that is closed --


RICHARDSON: -- that has no open access, no -- very few cell phones, very little Internet -- Eric Schmidt of Google was received like a rock star. Google is known by almost everybody in that country. They can't use it. But they aspire to it.

And so when you send a message like that and bring somebody like Eric Schmidt, it opens up a lot of possibilities, including the government, which received the message of Eric Schmidt quite well, of open access to the Internet.

BANFIELD: I have only a second left here, but I have to ask you about Kenneth BAE; you mentioned him off the tops of your remarks. This is the person who's being detained. He's an American, a Korean-American citizen, ostensibly there as a tourist and detained now for a couple of months, I believe.

You have had great success in the past, in the 15 years that you have been working with the North Koreans, in releasing people, bringing them home.

And yet this time you weren't even able to meet with Mr. Bae, but you did report that he's in good health.

I just want to know how you know that, being that you did not see first-hand, do you trust the North Koreans when they say that? And do you trust them when they say that his trial process is moving forward?

RICHARDSON: Well, I asked the highest levels, and they told me he was being treated properly, that he has consular access from the Swedes that represent us, that his trial, that his judicial proceedings, will be soon.

He was, unfortunately, very far away from Pyongyang, in the northern part of the country.

Now, there's another factor, Ashleigh, the fact that the North Koreans are mad at the United States. They feel that we're isolating them. I happen to think that our policy of sanctions is merited because they violated -- they violated a U.N. agreement of launching the missile.

Now, do we stop talking to them? I think it's a mistake. I think we need to keep talking to them but, again --

BANFIELD: Governor --

RICHARDSON: -- it's important to recognize that we did make a strong representation on Kenneth Bae and very few people have been able to do that because nobody talks to the North Koreans.

BANFIELD: And I certainly hope that any groundwork you may have laid is going to be effective, and I do hope you'll keep us apprised if you hear an update on Mr. Bae. I'm sure his family is just tormented by all of this.

Governor, it's always good to talk to you. Thank you so much.

RICHARDSON: Thank you.

BANFIELD: And, again, as we mentioned, this is something that obviously a lot of Americans will be watching: Kenneth Bae, now held in North Korea several months. And we'll update you as soon as we know more.


BANFIELD: Being told that you're going to die, well, that makes some tough decisions actually pretty cut and dried, doesn't it? And if you have cancer in your leg, for instance, the doctors recommend an amputation, you're probably not going to sleep on that one for long.

What if you don't have cancer, though? What if you're a beauty queen, you're young and you're healthy and you're gorgeous, yet you're seemingly predisposed to the breast cancer that killed your mother and your grandmother and your aunt?

This is Allyn Rose and she's competing to become Miss America tomorrow night. And win or lose, this current Miss D.C. has decided to undergo a preventative double mastectomy at the urging of her father.

My next guest understands that decision 100 percent, because Rene Syler did this. You probably know her from her fabulous blog, the "Good Enough Mother," and her writings and her teachings and she's the former host of "CBS This Morning."

And it goes on and on, your accolades, but listen, both of your parents, your mom and your dad, had breast cancer.


BANFIELD: Survived.

SYLER: Right.

BANFIELD: And yet you made this extraordinary decision. I can imagine you are watching this story very carefully.

SYLER: Yes, you know, it's funny, so my surgery I did in 2007, so I'm six years out.

But when I hear her story, I know what she's thinking and I know what she's feeling and she -- you know, I was older, obviously, and I had already had two kids and had nursed my children and -- but at that point you're trying to figure out, I want my life to be as long and rich and wonderful as it can be.

And you want to live it on your own terms. And that's what I feel like I hear when I hear her talking, is that she's taking control of her own life and her own health, and she wants to live it on her terms. BANFIELD: And there's her father, coming to her, you know, she's in her late 20s and her father's saying to her when she's in college, yes, do this. I mean, you know, you lost your mom, I lost my wife, we're a unit here, and I don't want to lose you, too.

And I think she even responded, I think my mom would have happily given up those breasts at an earlier age to see me in this, you know, to see me, hopefully, you know, compete in Miss America tomorrow.

SYLER: Sure. Well, I think ultimately her dad, her family, all of these things, that's wonderful she has the support, but ultimately this decision is hers and hers alone.

When I did my surgery, I was -- surprisingly there was great support from all kinds of circles, but there was also some criticism from people saying, well, she didn't have cancer and she should have trusted God --


BANFIELD: Why would anyone criticize you? I mean, isn't your business what you do with your (inaudible)?

SYLER: Exactly. Exactly. And that was like -- kind of was my point, was that, you know what, this is -- this is my life and my, you know, how I want to live.


SYLER: And also I felt like some of the criticism came from men and I kept thinking, you know, excuse me, first of all, this is not really your place at all; you're not married to me, you're not me. And they didn't really understand why.

But it didn't matter. They didn't need to understand. I needed to understand.

BANFIELD: Yes. Did you -- you know, you're scheduling your surgery so your days are coming closer and closer, did you ever back out at any point say, I'm calling the doctor, I'm calling it off?

SYLER: No. Never. I did mine -- I came to this decision, this conclusion, and I feel like it was a series of -- like I was moving closer and closer, every day I was moving closer.

I made the date for January -- this is January six years ago -- and I made the date in, like, the summer. My doctor was very clear, made this very clear to me. He said, we can always back out. Let's just reserve the surgical suite.

BANFIELD: (Inaudible).

SYLER: And I never did. I never did.

BANFIELD: Can you still get cancer? Can you still get breast cancer? SYLER: I can because I had a special procedure. Since I didn't have breast cancer, I had a procedure that is called a nipple-sparing mastectomy. So I still have my own anatomy but minus the breast tissue. So you can still get a breast cancer but your risk is very, very low.


BANFIELD: Well, how much lower? I mean, what did you do, by doing what you did, how did you reduce your risk?

SYLER: Probably to about, you know, between 1 percent and 2 percent.


SYLER: Yes, whereas --


SYLER: -- before I was way, way above the average.

BANFIELD: And here is my guess: no regrets?

SYLER: None. Not a one.

BANFIELD: And may I say, you look amazing?

SYLER: Well, thank you.


BANFIELD: I knew she was going to do that, because you know why? Because here's a secret Rene and I, we've known each other 17 years. We met in Dallas, Texas when we were both local anchors. And I, you know, I've obviously (inaudible).

SYLER: And you said, when I got here, you said, "They look good." So --

BANFIELD: (Inaudible), girl. I mean, yes. (Inaudible).

Rene Syler, it's great seeing you and thanks for your perspective. I'm really interested to see how this goes for this young woman. (Inaudible).

SYLER: Good to see you, too.

BANFIELD: Back right after this.


BANFIELD: So you do not need me to tell you that your credit score is important and maybe this year more than ever. Interest rates could be going up this year. Yikes. And a lot of people could be looking to lock in some of those real sweet low rates that are out there. But if you happen to be hamstrung by bad credit and a bad credit score, there are ways to improve it. And the person who knows so well how to do so is Christine Romans.

You and I were in the middle of this segment -- I think it was on Wednesday.


BANFIELD: Great information -- and, lo and behold, I think the vice president had something breaking.


BANFIELD: Yes. So we had to stop the segment and we were overloaded with tweets, people saying, get back to that information; I want to know how to improve my credit score. And it's not that hard?

ROMANS: No, it's not that hard. It just takes time. That's the issue here. You know, it's -- you know, I always like to say, you put on 40 pounds and then you say, can I improve my credit score in a month? Well, it's like putting on 40 pounds. You can't get it off in a month. It takes time. It takes as much time as it took to get it bad, is how much time it takes to get it better.

Look, high achievers are considered people with 785-plus credit scores. And they have a very common denominator: they are boring.

BANFIELD: Boring is better.

ROMANS: Boring. They've got (inaudible) loans or credit cards. They pay their bills.

BANFIELD: What do I do to become boring? What do I do to be boring?

ROMANS: You know, you're boring, you have four credit cards; you pay them off. Maybe you have a little bit of balance, but that's all. That's fine. Four credit cards and other loans, but you always pay your bills on time. You fix your mistakes; go to, find your mistakes, fix them.

Once a year; you don't have to obsess every month with your credit score. And don't ding your credit all the time. Don't be pinging, you know, looking for your credit all the time. Just once a year is fine. And time heals all wounds.

BANFIELD: What -- ?

ROMANS: You just got to pay your bills for a long time and your credit score will go up.

BANFIELD: What's the worst thing I can do?

ROMANS: The worst -- well, the worst thing you can do is ignore it, first of all. There are a lot of crazy schemes; I'm going to borrow some money and then -- it just -- it's so simple that it's almost sad. It's just like a diet. You just exercise more and eat less. You just live below your means, pay down your debt, pay your bills on time all the time.

BANFIELD: How clever.

ROMANS: And you will raise your credit score.

BANFIELD: Hey, someone mentioned to me once -- because some people really obsess about this and they check their credit score all the time.

ROMANS: That's a terrible idea.

BANFIELD: What's wrong with checking your credit score?

ROMANS: Because every time you open it up, it looks like someone is opening up your credit. You don't want to do -- the other thing --

BANFIELD: What's wrong with that, though?

ROMANS: Well, people --

BANFIELD: Does it lower your score?

ROMANS: It can, yes. Oh, yes, it can.

And you also don't want to be going out there, like opening up a bunch of store cards, every time you open up these new cards, every time you open up a credit check, it's not good for you.

The other thing that people do is they do the credit monitoring and all that stuff, look, you've already got a free credit report every year. You shouldn't obsess about the number. You want to look at the credit history, that's free, it's free. You look at that and you clean up any mistakes and, like half of people have a mistake on their credit report.

You clean that up and then your credit score goes up, too.