The World Health Organisation has raised its swine flu threat assessment to Level 4 from Level 3 on its 6-point scale. WHO official Keiji Fukuda (photo) clarified that the swine flu virus could become a pandemic transmitted from person to person.
AFP - World health officials boosted moves to combat deadly swine flu, releasing millions of antiviral drugs Monday as the first cases were found in Europe and the likely Mexican death toll rose to 149.
The World Health Organization (WHO) raised its flu pandemic alert level from three to four, signalling a "significant increase in risk of a pandemic."
The number of confirmed cases in the United States doubled to 40 and Britain and Spain recorded their first swine flu victims, while UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned the new multi-strain virus risked triggering a global pandemic.
"We are concerned that this virus could cause a new influenza pandemic. It could be mild in its effect or potentially be severe," Ban told reporters.
"We don't know yet which way it will go but we are concerned that in Mexico most of those who died were young and healthy adults."
Influenza caused three epidemics during the 20th century, the worst being the Spanish flu between 1918 and 1919 that killed at least 40 million people, according to the WHO.
Mexico, which was rocked by a 5.6 magnitude earthquake on Monday, said the number of confirmed and suspected deaths from the flu had now risen, as other countries urged against non-essential travel to the tourism hotspot.
"There are 149 who have died that we're investigating to allow us to confirm" whether they were infected with swine flu, Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said. Over 1,600 Mexicans are believed to have fallen ill.
Europe's first confirmed case was reported in Spain, while two people were found to have the disease in Britain and dozens more suspected cases were being checked in seven European Union member states, including France, Belgium and Ireland.
Fears the disease could further strain the already-embattled global economy gave stock markets the jitters, leading to falls in Europe and Asia, while trading on Wall Street was muted.
And oil prices fell sharply on fears the escalating outbreak could further dampen economic activity and impact energy demand.
"The initial flu news has created the specter of a potentially globally economic depressing event just as the markets were evaluating the prospects for economic recovery," said JP Morgan Research analyst Lawrence Eagles.
Although the US government has declared a public health emergency with 40 cases in five states, President Barack Obama urged calm.
The swine flu outbreak "requires a heightened state of alert, but it is not a cause for alarm," he told a gathering of the National Academy of Sciences.
Richard Besser, acting director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said the affected states of New York, Ohio, Kansas, Texas and California and others were receiving 11 million courses of antiviral drugs.
"Of the 40 cases, we are only aware of one individual who was hospitalized, and all people who have been infected and were sick have recovered," Besser said.
"So the good news is we haven't identified it in additional states. But I wouldn't put too much on that," he added, stressing further nationwide testing would likely unearth more cases in the next week.
Swiss pharmaceutical group Roche said it was ready to send out more stocks of the antiviral medication Tamiflu, some 220 million doses of which are in the hands of governments worldwide.
And British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline also said it was "urgently" investigating how to boost production of its antiviral drug Relenza, as the race to develop a direct vaccine for the H1N1 strain gathered pace.
The company has already provided 100,000 packs of the drug to Mexican authorities, along with a further 170,000 doses of its seasonal flu vaccine, and was discussing with Mexico whether further help was needed, it said.
The European Union called emergency talks of health ministers and advised against non-essential travel to areas where the deadly virus has surfaced. The US was also to issue an advisory warning against "non-essential travel" to Mexico.
Nine people in both New Zealand and Colombia, plus one each in Brazil and Peru and up to 12 in Canada are under observation with flu symptoms, while in the Middle East, a 26-year-old Israeli was also hospitalized.
The WHO has warned that the swine flu strain -- apparently born out of a mix of human and avian flu viruses that infected pigs -- could become a pandemic and has called for all nations to "intensify surveillance."
Date created : 2009-04-27