Global alarm as killer swine flu spreads

27th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Suspected cases were also being investigated in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and four new infections were confirmed in Canada.

Mexico City -- World health officials Sunday stepped up the battle against a new swine flu, blamed for dozens of deaths in Mexico, as the US declared a public emergency amid signs the disease was spreading.

The United States will screen visitors arriving in the US from infected areas, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, as 20 cases were confirmed in five states.

Suspected cases were also being investigated in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and four new infections were confirmed in Canada.

Authorities in Mexico, where the new multi-strain swine flu was first detected, confirmed 20 people have died and warned the death toll could be as high as 81. Five people were said to have died in the capital in the past 24 hours.

"As we look for cases of swine flu, we are seeing more cases of swine flu. We expect to see more cases of swine flu," Richard Besser, the acting head of the Centers for Disease Control, told a White House press conference.

Besser said there were eight confirmed cases in New York City, seven in California, two in Texas, two in Kansas and one in Ohio.

US President Barack Obama is monitoring the swine flu outbreak closely and has ordered a "very active, aggressive, and coordinated response," said White House homeland security advisor John Brennan.

World Health Organization (WHO) officials warned Sunday the new strain, apparently born when human and avian flu viruses infected pigs and became mixed, could further mutate.

"Yes, it's quite possible for this virus to evolve," Keiji Fukuda, acting WHO assistant director-general for health, security and the environment, told journalists in Geneva.

"When viruses evolve, clearly they can become more dangerous to people."

The WHO has already recommended that all nations "intensify surveillance for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia."

Thousands of people have begun wearing blue face masks to ward off infection in Mexico where 1,324 people are being treated for flu symptoms.

Two city zoos on Sunday joined schools, museums, theatres and music festivals which have closed down, and authorities sought to shut down bars and nightclubs.

Church officials took the unusual step of cancelling Sunday services in this mainly Catholic country, after President Felipe Calderon gave his government extraordinary powers to tackle the outbreak.

"This virus has clearly a pandemic potential," World Health Organization (WHO) director general, Margaret Chan, warned on Saturday.

On CNN senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett was asked if Obama had tested negative for swine flu after he paid his first official visit to Mexico just over a week ago.

"He's fine. He is just fine," she said without elaborating.

Asian health officials also went on alert as the flu strain appeared to have spread to New Zealand.

Governments across the region, which has in recent years been at the forefront of the SARS and bird flu epidemics, stepped up checks at airports and urged the public to be on guard for symptoms of the new flu.

Ten New Zealand students who recently travelled to Mexico are "likely" to have contracted swine fever, Health Minister Tony Ryall said Sunday -- the first suspected cases in the region of more than three billion people.

The European Commission said it was on alert Sunday for swine flu, although there have not been any confirmed cases in Europe.

France on Sunday reported four suspected cases of swine flu among travellers returning from Mexico while six suspected cases were also reported in Spain.

In the first suspected swine flu case in the Middle East, a 26-year-old Israeli man has been hospitalized in Netanya on returning from Mexico, hospital officials told AFP.

Russia Sunday banned meat imports from Mexico, several US states and nine Latin American nations, a spokesman for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said. Although US officials said it is impossible to catch the flu from eating meat.

According to the WHO, pigs have already been factors in the appearance of two previously unknown diseases that gave rise to pandemics in the last century.


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