Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 19:22 pm (KSA) 16:22 pm (GMT)

Swine flu on brink of pandemic: WHO

The World Health Organisation six-phase pandemic alert system
The World Health Organisation six-phase pandemic alert system

The World Health Organization said on Wednesday the world is at the brink of a pandemic, raising its threat level as the swine flu virus spread and killed the first person outside of Mexico, a toddler in Texas.

"Influenza pandemics must be taken seriously precisely because of their capacity to spread rapidly to every country in the world," WHO Director General Margaret Chan told a news conference in Geneva as she raised the official alert level to phase 5, the last step before a pandemic.

"The biggest question is this: how severe will the pandemic be, especially now at the start," Chan said. But she added that "the world is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history."

Urging Mexicans to stay at home

 Influenza pandemics must be taken seriously precisely because of their capacity to spread rapidly to every country in the world 
Margaret Chan, WHO

Mexico said it had suffered another 17 deaths of patients potentially linked to swine flu, bringing the total to as many as 176, and called for a suspension of all non-essential work and services.

Mexico's president told citizens to stay home from Friday for a five-day partial shutdown of the economy.

Already in Mexico City, a metropolis of 20 million, all schools, restaurants, nightclubs and public events have been shut down to try to stop the sickness from spreading, bringing normal life to a virtual standstill.

People are advised to wear masks in crowded places to avoid infection

Nearly a week after the H1N1 swine flu virus first emerged in California and Texas and was found to have caused dozens of deaths in Mexico. Spain reported the first case in Europe of swine flu in a person who had not been to Mexico, illustrating the danger of person-to-person transmission.

Both U.S. and European officials said they expect to see swine flu deaths.

President Barack Obama said during an evening news conference at the White House there was no need for panic and rejected the possibility of closing the border with Mexico.

New cases reported worldwide

 The world is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history 
Chan

Almost all cases outside Mexico have had mild symptoms, and only a handful have required hospitalization.

Chan also urged companies who make the drugs to ramp up production. Two antiviral drugs -- Relenza, made by GlaxoSmithKline and Tamiflu, made by Roche AG and Gilead Sciences Inc. -- have been shown to work against the H1N1 strain.

Drugmakers have donated millions of doses of their drugs to the WHO. She also alerted governments to be ready to distribute stockpiles of their drugs. The WHO has three million capsules of Tamiflu stock stocked in Dubai to be distributed in the Middle East if there is an outbreak.

Vaccine makers were on standby to begin making a new vaccine if needed.

And Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Peru and the Netherlands reported cases of the illness, bringing the number of affected countries to 11.

Several countries have banned lvestock and pork imports because of concerns about swine flu

Texas officials said a 22-month-old boy died while on a family visit from Mexico, marking the first confirmed U.S. swine flu death. In the Texas border city of Brownsville, where the boy was first diagnosed, some residents said they were now reluctant to venture south to Mexico.

France said it would seek a European Union ban on flights to Mexico.

The EU, the United States and Canada have advised against non-essential travel to Mexico, and many tourists were hurrying to leave, crowding airports.

Bird flu and swine flu

 There is no reason to do that. It's not a swine influenza, it's a human influenza 
Joseph Domenech, FAO

Egypt, hit hard by bird flu, ordered the slaughter of every pig herd in the country as a precaution against swine flu, a step the United Nations said was a mistake.

The H1N1 swine flu virus is spread by people and is not present in Egyptian animals but culling pigs, largely viewed as unclean in Muslim Egypt, could help quell any panic.

But the United Nations said the mass cull of up to 400,000 pigs was "a real mistake."

"There is no reason to do that. It's not a swine influenza, it's a human influenza," said Joseph Domenech, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's chief veterinary officer, told Reuters.

Experts have long feared the bird flu virus could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, sparking a pandemic that could kill millions.

Egypt has suffered a surge in human cases of bird flu this month even as the flu season nears an end. Experts say the culling of pigs is unlikely to have an impact on the spread of swine flu if it reaches the country via air travelers.

Experts say that it is technically possible but extremely unlikely that swine flu -- a mix of swine, human and avian flu -- could find a way to combine with H5N1 in Egypt to create yet another flu strain.

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