- European Union - health - INFLUENZA A (H1N1) - Mexico - WHO
AFP - Swine flu is set to reach pandemic levels in Europe but unlikely to cause widespread deaths, EU health chiefs said Thursday as they struggled to overcome differences on how to contain the virus.
EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou insisted, after an emergency meeting of European health ministers in Luxembourg, that people should not panic even though it looks increasingly likely that the virus will reach pandemic proportions.
"We are worried, but we are on top of it, there is no need to panic," she told journalists.
"It is very likely that we will reach a pandemic, but this does not mean that it will be deadly," she said.
Although there have been deaths from the virus, mainly in Mexico, most people who have contracted it had responded well, she said, adding that even in normal times seasonal flu kills 250,000 people worldwide every year.
"This is a new virus so it may happen that humans have no immunity to it," said Czech Health Minister Daniela Filipiova, who chaired the meeting.
She added that the fact that there might be a pandemic only meant that "it may happen that an unusal amount of people may be ill," and that therefore the appropriate response was in "precautionary measures".
While the ministers agreed to coordinate their responses across Europe, they struggled to agree on whether travel restrictions were necessary, shooting down a French proposal to halt flights to Mexico.
French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot acknowledged that there was little support among Paris' EU partners for such a drastic measure, but insisted that the idea was still on the table.
"In the current state of the situation, we are not yet taking this decision," she said.
Other countries such as Germany and Spain balked at the proposal, considering it too radical and having little value since the outbreak had already spread far beyond Mexico.
"People are free to travel where they want and no country can forbid that," German Health Minister Ulla Schmidt said. However those planning a trip to Mexico "should put it off", she added.
In the absence of broad support for the French proposal, the Czech minister said: "We have agreed that it is a matter to be dealt with by the individual member states."
The swine flu outbreak was first discovered in Mexico where the government on Thursday sharply raised its toll of confirmed flu cases to 260, including 12 fatalities.
Vassiliou said that European countries had "substantial" stockpiles of vaccines and antiflu medicine, although she was not in a position to say whether they would be sufficient if the situation deteriorated dramatically.
"If there is a real escalation of the crisis the member states that have more stockpiles of antivirals expressed their willingness and readiness to help others in a spirit of solidarity," she said.
Italy has called on EU countries to consider developing jointly run stockpiles, an idea that countries have resisted in the past.
On the sidelines of the EU meeting, Italy also urged its own citizens returning from Mexico to quarantine themselves at home for seven days over concerns about the potentially deadly flu.
The hastily arranged meeting in Luxembourg took place as a growing number of European countries announce cases of the flu, although none have proved deadly in Europe so far.
Filipiova said that the World Health Organisation, which has also warned that a pandemic is imminent, had deemed Europe as the best prepared region in the world to tackle the outbreak.