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WHO awaits clearer picture of swine flu severity and spread

Geneva — The World Health Organisation was keeping a close eye on the swine outbreak in both Mexico and Europe on Saturday, as it sought a clear picture of both the severity of the virus and its global spread.

WHO Director of Global Alert and Response Mike Ryan said the next few days would be crucial in determining the spread of the new A(H1N1) influenza virus in Europe, the continent most affected by the disease outside North America.

But he said the situation was not yet established, despite reassuring signs from Mexico that the virus was less severe in terms of its symptoms than first feared.

"Severity is not completely established," he told journalists.

WHO teams in Mexico were still trying to track down the source of the outbreak and to establish the pattern and exact numbers involved there.

Mexico’s government said Saturday the country’s A(H1N1) flu outbreak appeared to be "in a stabilisation phase," with the death toll unchanged at 16, although the tally of cases continued to rise.

At WHO headquarters in Geneva, Ryan urged caution although he welcomed evidence of reduced severity.

"I think if you cast you mind back to SARS or other epidemics, you’ll find that at this stage of the epidemic it’s very difficult to make an accurate estimate of severity," he added.

The UN health agency was also casting an anxious eye on Europe.

More cases were being confirmed there, mainly mild ones among travellers returning from Mexico and people in close contact with them, who were quarantined while they were ill.

A full blown global pandemic could be declared if the new A(H1N1) influenza virus spread widely within countries on a continent other than the Americas, where the outbreak originated.

"I think the next few days will tell," said Ryan, while underlining that European countries appeared to have managed to keep the disease in check.

"It would be at this stage unwise to suggest in any way that these events are out of control."

"At the present time, I would still propose that a pandemic is imminent because we see the disease spread," said Ryan.

But he added: "We have no evidence of sustained community spread outside North America."

Currently the world is in phase five of the WHO’s six-tier pandemic alert scale, which indicates that a pandemic is imminent.

Britain, France, Germany, Israel and Spain were among the countries in the WHO’s European region that confirmed new cases to the WHO on Saturday, Ryan said.

The WHO said Saturday there were 615 cases of swine flu in 15 countries.

In Mexico, where the A(H1N1) virus originated last month, Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said Saturday the total number of confirmed cases was 443, including 16 deaths.

Apart from Mexico, the only other fatality so far has been a Mexican boy visiting relatives in the southern US state of Texas.

The United States has 160 confirmed cases, most of them mild, across 21 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Saturday.