May 1st, 2009

Swine Flu Virus Outbreak, Part II

Posted at 2:00 AM ET

swineflumapsmallA deadly outbreak of a swine flu virus first detected in Mexico continues to cause global concern, as the number of cases detected worldwide rises. On April 29, 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised its flu alert level from four to five, just one stage below a full-blown pandemic in which there is widespread human to human transmission. The WHO said the upgrade signaled that a “pandemic is imminent” and prompted the organization to advise countries to activate their pandemic plans, including heightened surveillance and infection-control measures. The WHO’s level five alert indicates “human to human transmission in at least two countries.”

According to the WHO, the number of swine flu cases confirmed by health officials worldwide currently totals around 250, most of them in Mexico (99) and the United States (93). However, some 2,955 suspected cases have been reported in Mexico alone, where officials suspect as many as 168 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 April 30, 2009, cases of the swine flu virus have been confirmed in 12 countries: Austria, Canada, Costa Rica, Germany, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. A Mexican child died of swine flu while on a visit in Texas on April 29, 2009 — the first death from the virus outside Mexico. However, in almost all swine flu cases outside Mexico, health officials said people have been only mildly ill. The WHO has said it does not yet understand why the disease has been more severe in Mexico.

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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 May 6, 2009. Mexico City also shut restaurants, bars, cinemas, stadiums, gyms, and some government offices to stop the infection from spreading. The city’s chamber of trade estimated restrictions in the city were costing businesses there at least 777 million pesos (USD57 million) a day. In addition, President Felipe Calderon has announced the suspension of all government and private business activity countrywide from May 1, 2009 to May 5, 2009. President Calderon said the government are concentrating on containing the virus, and he urged people to stay at home during the shutdown.

The Mexican government is also distributing 4 million filter masks in Mexico City, which has 20 million residents. Following stricter testing, only eight confirmed deaths have been attributed to the swine flu so far in Mexico, but officials warned the number of deaths likely to have been caused by swine flu has risen to 168 with more than 1,300 patients under observation. 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 most of those who had died were aged 20 to 50. Mr 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 April 27, 2009, when one man in Spain and two others in the United Kingdom, all whom recently returned from Mexico, were confirmed to have contracted the illness. Since then, several new cases have been reported in Europe. Spain is currently the worst affected country in Europe with 10 confirmed cases (including the first infection in Europe of a person who has not been to Mexico), while five confirmed cases have been reported in the UK. Austria (one), Germany (four), and Switzerland (one) have also confirmed cases of the virus. Other confirmed cases have also been reported in Canada (19), Costa Rica (two), New Zealand (16), Israel (two), Peru (one) and the United States (93). Individuals are also being tested for the virus strain in several other countries, including Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, Fiji, Guatemala, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, South Africa, South Korea, and Sweden.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed at least 93 cases and one death. Officials said a 23-month-old Mexican child visiting relatives in Houston, Texas, died on April 29, 2009. Some 51 cases of swine flu have been confirmed in New York. Cases have also been reported in Arizona (one), California (14), Kansas (two), Indiana (one), Maine (three), Massachusetts (two), Michigan (one), Nevada (one), Ohio (one), and Texas (16). The WHO said the New York cases appear to involve human to human spread and reports said several schools in New York City, Texas, California, South Carolina, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Ohio have been shut. Reports said Texas Governor Rick Perry has issued a disaster declaration and the closing of schools in the state will affect around 53,000 children. In addition, California has declared a state of emergency and President Barack Obama is asking Congress for an additional USD1.5 billion to bolster the U.S. response.

Although the WHO has urged countries not to restrict international travel or close borders, several counties have taken their own action. U.S. and European officials have advised travelers to reconsider any immediate travel plans to visit Mexico, stating that all nonessential travel to the country should be avoided. In the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is advising against all but essential travel to Mexico, while France and Germany issued travel alerts for the country. In Japan, the government said it will suspend visa-free entry for Mexican nationals and advised its own citizens to defer trips to the country. Taiwan and Indonesia also advised against travel to Mexico while Cuba, Ecuador and Argentina banned flights to the nation. Russia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, meanwhile, said they would quarantine visitors showing symptoms of the virus.

Currently, there is no vaccine for the swine flu virus but the WHO said one 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 left for Mexico on April 28, 2009 to investigate allegations that industrial pig farms in Mexico were the source of the outbreak.

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Sources: World Health Organization, Agence France Presse, Associated Press, BBC News, CNN News, Reuters News

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