World rushes to curb spread as virus reaches Europe
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Europe has reported its first Swine flu cases with two in Britain and one in Spain. The World Health Organisation has announced that it is considering raising its alert level as the number of Swine flu cases shows no sign of slowing.
Governments around the world are stepping up traveller screening measures and alerting hospital authorities in an attempt to battle the growing risk of a global swine flu pandemic.
The first case in Europe was confirmed in Spain on Monday and soon followed by two confirmed cases in Great Britain, stirring up fears that travellers are spreading the virus to Europe. At the epicentre of the breakout, Mexico has seen activity in its schools, businesses and entertainment centres grind to a halt amid efforts to curb the spread of the air-transmitted virus.
At a press conference on Monday, the World Health Organisation announced that it is considering raising its alert level to 4 or 5 on a six-point scale as the virus shows no sign of abating. Level 4 would indicate that the organisation believes that it is a potential pandemic virus that could be transmitted person to person and cause large outbreaks globally.
WHO figures now put the number of confirmed swine flu cases at 40 in the United States, 26 in Mexico, six in Canada, one in Spain and two in Great Britain.
Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova announced that the number of fatalities linked to influenza-like viruses has reached 149, although it is unclear whether all of the cases involve the H1N1 or H1N3 virus strains of swine flu. With the number of cases under observation standing at 1,614, the minister also stressed that the recovery rate in the country is of more than 60 percent. He noted that existing cases tend to involve a pattern of infection among working-age populations between 20 and 55, rather than in traditionally more fragile groups such as young children or the elderly.
President Felipe Calderon called for calm, urging citizens to respect the tightened anti-epidemic measures declared in the country: patient quarantines, traveller and merchandise controls at border checkpoints and airports, closure of schools, universities, theatres, museums, stadiums and night clubs. The bustling capital, Mexico City, was unusually quiet on Sunday as citizens kept off the streets. Even major Sunday masses were closed to the public and aired on national television instead. City authorities are debating whether or not to close their doors.
Mexican authorities assured citizens that they have enough anti-viral medication available in the event of a mass breakout. Special medical teams are already present at the country’s airports. A special fund of 450 million dollars has been set up, in addition to an immediate 25-million-dollar loan granted by the World Bank.
The United States has declared a state of public emergency, setting up medical checks for all those crossing the US-Mexico border. US President Barack Obama announced that he was closely monitoring the outbreak, and has ordered a “very active, aggressive and coordinated response” to the nascent crisis.
In France, Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot said all four people who had recently tested positive after returning from a trip to the Americas had not in fact been infected by swine flu. So far, there have been no confirmed cases of the virus on French soil.
The European Commission has called for an emergency meeting of all EU health ministers to prepare a coordinated response, should the virus spread.
WHO officials warn that the new strain, apparently born when human and avian flu viruses infected pigs and merged into one, could further mutate. The Organisation recommended that all nations “intensify surveillance for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia”. So far, the virus appears to be largely limited to the North American continent. Suspected cases reported in Europe, Israel or Colombia all concern people who have recently travelled to infected Mexican regions.
According to the organisation, Asia is better prepared than other regions to handle an outbreak of swine flu after its experience dealing with recent epidemics, such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003. Governments across the region introduced airport checks for swine flu, screening passengers returning on flights from North and South America. New Zealand Health Minister Tony Ryall says ten students who recently travelled to Mexico are “likely” to have contracted swine flu – the first suspected cases in the Asia-Pacific reason.
Although swine flu appears to spread by breathing air exhaled by an infected pig or person, and not by eating any type of pork produce, both China and Russia have announced a ban on pork meat from Mexico, several US states and nine Latin American nations.