World warned of grim swine flu battle ahead

3rd May 2009, Comments 0 comments

Amid warnings that more deaths are inevitable, governments launched publicity campaigns, while France pressed calls for a ban on flights to Mexico and Italy urged the European Union to stockpile vaccines.

Geneva -- Governments braced their populations for a grim battle with swine flu after the World Health Organisation stepped up its global alert and said that a pandemic is imminent.

Amid warnings that more deaths are inevitable, governments launched publicity campaigns, while France pressed calls for a ban on flights to Mexico and Italy urged the European Union to stockpile vaccines.

New swine flu cases were confirmed in Switzerland and Peru, meaning there are now more than 150 confirmed cases in 11 countries outside Mexico where the death toll has been revised down to 84. One child has also died in the United States.

Margaret Chan, head of the UN health agency, said the WHO alert was being raised to five on a 1-6 scale -- meaning the pandemic threat was imminent.

"All countries should immediately now activate their pandemic preparedness plans," Chan said. "The biggest question right now is how severe the pandemic might be."

Swine flu is believed to be a new strain that combines bird, swine and common human influenza. It has rapidly brought Mexico to a virtual standstill and made its way around the world forcing governments to step up efforts to halt the spread.

France pushed for a ban on flights to Mexico and Italy urged Europe to stockpile vaccines as EU health ministers held an emergency meeting in Luxembourg.

The French proposal has so far found little public support among other European governments but Italy has now called on EU partners to set up a "strategic stockpile of antivirals and vaccines."

Britain, where there are five confirmed cases including a honeymoon couple and a 12-year-old girl, launched a mass public information campaign Thursday over the swine flu threat.

Adverts on television, radio and in newspapers stressed the need to take basic hygiene precautions such as using tissues and washing hands.

Britain's Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson said: "Most people who get flu, even a new strain of flu, will make a good recovery. It's a nasty illness but it's short and they will recover.

"To put things in proportion, in any flu, even the seasonal flu, there are some deaths, often of elderly people and the very frail. What we will see is many more cases, but on the whole most people make a good recovery from flu."

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso ordered an all-out campaign against swine flu. Aso's cabinet said military physicians would be sent to Tokyo's main airport, hospitals would set up special 'fever clinics' and all live pig imports would be checked.

Mexico has shut down public venues -- including popular tourist sites as well as all restaurants, bars and gyms in the capital -- while major cruise lines and tour operators have halted trips to the country.

In a televised address President Felipe Calderon urged Mexicans to stay home during a five-day holiday weekend that starts Friday.

"There is no place as safe for protecting yourself against swine flu as your own home," he said. The government said the crisis could cost Mexico up to 70 billion dollars.

Mexican officials said eight people were confirmed dead while 91 infected people were healthy. They said the suspected death toll from the disease was 84, about half the previous number.

The only confirmed death outside Mexico was a Mexican toddler in the United States, announced on Wednesday.

"Unfortunately I would anticipate that we will see additional deaths," said Richard Besser, acting head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

US President Barack Obama ruled out closing the border between the two countries as part of measures to fight the spread of the illness.

"It would be akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out, because we already have cases here in the United States," Obama told a news conference.

In New Zealand, officials said the number of confirmed or probable cases was now 16 -- three confirmed -- and that the number of suspected cases was at 111.

Switzerland became the fifth European country to confirm the virus, with one case in a man recently returned from Mexico. There are also cases in Austria, Britain, Germany, Spain and Peru.

The WHO's phase five alert means widespread transmission from person to person, and with no vaccine against the swine flu strain, authorities are dependent on reducing human contact to fight the spread of the virus.

Pig farmers in many countries have been hit hard by the swine flu crisis and are pressing governments to change the name of the virus.

Egypt ordered the slaughter of all pigs in the country and there have been widespread bans on imports of North American pork, even though the disease cannot be caught from eating the meat.


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