Swine flu pandemic imminent, warns WHO, raises alert level


Mexico City/Washington/Toronto : The alert for swine flu, which originated in Mexico and has now spread to several countries, was raised to a level which is one shy of a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as governments aggressively tried to contain its spread.

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As the total number of confirmed swine flu cases worldwide rose to 155, WHO Director General Margaret Chan raised the pandemic alert to phase 5.

The declaration is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent. It is characterised by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region, DPA news agency reported from Geneva.

The fears of swine flu having reached India were dispelled by the WHO which said the country has not reported any swine flu case and was prepared to handle a possible outbreak.

“There has been no suspected case in India,” J.P. Narain, director communicable disease in the WHO regional office for Southeast Asia, told reporters in New Delhi.

Asked about reports that an NRI who had flown from Texas to Hyderabad has been found with the flu symptoms, Narain said: “We spoke to the Indian health officials and they told us that the laboratory results (of the NRI) were negative.”

Narain said there is a “strong signal that a pandemic is imminent”.

As the flu spread, countries all over the world took step to contain the disease, which mimics the symptoms of influenza with fever, coughing, muscle ache and fatigue.

In Mexico, the number of confirmed flu infections climbed from 49 to 91, with eight deaths caused by the new strain, Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said.

There have been close to 160 deaths and nearly 2,500 infections in Mexico’s flu outbreak. Most of them were not confirmed as victims of swine flu yet. Of these, more than 1,300 people remain in hospital.

Apart from Mexico, WHO reported confirmed swine flu cases in Canada, the US, Israel, Spain, Britain and New Zealand. Costa Rica said it had two confirmed cases while a case each was reported from Switzerland and Peru Thursday.

At least 19 people in four European countries were confirmed to have been infected with swine flu, the Swedish-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said.

In addition, France reported two suspected cases, the agency said. In all but one of the cases in Europe the people had visited Mexico.

WHO has not ruled out that it may yet up the level once more, to the highest-possible phase 6, which would mean that a global pandemic was underway.

While phase 6 would mean that the new outbreak had taken on global dimensions, it would not indicate how severe the disease had become.

“A pandemic virus is precarious, unpredictable and will take us by surprise,” Chan said.

With governments trying to contain the spread of swine flu, Canada extended a helping hand to Mexico to carry out swine flu tests.

The Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory began analysing the 200 specimens from patients in Mexico with severe respiratory illness.

“In the spirit of international collaboration, and as part of our North American approach to this situation, we are pleased to assist the government of Mexico with testing of virus samples,” said Canada’s Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

In neighbouring US, President Barack Obama said that there were no plans to close the country’s border with Mexico despite a growing swine flu outbreak, but assured the people that his government was doing all it could to contain the threat.

Obama said late Wednesday that closing the border was “akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out”, as there were already nearly 100 cases confirmed in the US, including one death.

“This is a cause for deep concern, but not panic,” Obama said in a news conference at the White House. “The key now, I think, is to make sure that we are maintaining great vigilance.”

The US confirmed the first death from swine flu outside Mexico Wednesday – a 23-month-old toddler in Houston, Texas, who had entered the country from Mexico earlier this month.