A deadly outbreak of a swine flu virus first detected in Mexico has sparked global concern, as a rising number of cases have been detected worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday raised its flu pandemic alert level from three to four, two steps short of declaring a full pandemic. The WHO said the upgrade signalled a “significant increase in risk of a pandemic,” and prompted the organization to advise countries to now focus on mitigating the effects of the virus rather than containing it. The WHO’s level four alert means the virus is showing a sustained ability to pass from human to human, and is able to cause community-level outbreaks. However, the organization stressed that “a pandemic is not considered inevitable” at this stage.
According to the WHO, the number of swine flu cases confirmed by health officials worldwide currently totals 82, most of them in Mexico and the United States. However, more than 1,600 cases have been reported in Mexico, where officials suspect as many as 152 deaths can be attributed to the outbreak. The virus is believed to be a new strain of a humanly transmissible influenza virus, H1N1, which has the potential to trigger an influenza pandemic. As of Tuesday, cases of the swine flu virus have been confirmed in Mexico, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States, but no deaths have been reported outside Mexico. In almost all swine flu cases outside Mexico, health officials said people have been only mildly ill and have made a full recovery. The WHO has said it does not yet understand why the disease has been more severe in Mexico.
Mexican officials have canceled schools nationwide in an attempt to thwart an accelerated spread of the virus, and they are all expected to remain closed until 6 May. Officials are debating whether to suspend other public activities but are considering the resulting economic effects, reports said. The government is also distributing 4 million filter masks in Mexico City, which has 20 million residents. More than 20 confirmed deaths have been attributed to the Swine flu so far in Mexico, with more casualties expected in the near future. Reports said the Mexican government started to track an increase in cases of severe respiratory illness from mid March. Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said all of those who had died were aged between 20 and 50. Cordova added the first suspected “case of swine flu had occurred in the southern state of Oaxaca” but stressed that “the point of origin or dissemination” of the virus remained undetermined.
According to reports, swine flu officially arrived in Europe on Monday when one man in Spain and two others in the United Kingdom, all who recently returned from Mexico, were confirmed to have contracted the illness. Another case has since been confirmed in Spain. Other confirmed cases have also been reported in New Zealand and Israel. Individuals in Australia, Brazil, Guatemala, Peru and South Korea are currently being tested for the new virus strain. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed 50 cases. Some 28 cases of swine flu have been confirmed in New York. Cases have also been reported in Ohio, Kansas, Texas, and California. Only one US case has required hospitalization, the CDC said. Canada also confirmed six cases. No case outside Mexico was currently life-threatening, according to officials in each respective country.
Although the WHO has urged countries not to restrict international travel or close borders, some have taken their own action. United States and European officials have advised travelers to reconsider any immediate travel plans to visit Mexico, stating that all non-essential travel to the country should be avoided. In the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is advising against all but essential travel to Mexico. Russia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, meanwhile, said they would quarantine visitors showing symptoms of the virus.
The WHO said vaccines for the swine flu virus could be ready in four to six months time, but it will take several more months to produce large quantities. Health experts say the virus comes from the same strain that causes seasonal outbreaks in humans but also contains genetic material from versions of flu which usually affect pigs and birds. Reports said experts from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization are due to leave for Mexico today to investigate allegations that industrial pig farms in Mexico were the source of the outbreak.
Sources: World Health Organisation, Agence France Presse, Associated Press, BBC News, CNN News, Reuters News
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