MEXICO CITY - Governments around the world rushed yesterday to check the spread of a new type of swine flu that has killed up to 81 people in Mexico and infected around a dozen in the United States.
The epidemic has snowballed into a monster headache for Mexico, already grappling with a violent drug war and economic slowdown. Mexico's tourism and retail sectors could be badly hit. A new pandemic would deal a major blow to a world economy already suffering its worst recession in decades.
In New Zealand, 10 pupils from an Auckland school party that had returned from Mexico were being treated for influenza symptoms in what health authorities said was a likely case of swine flu.
New Zealand Health Minister Tony Ryall said none of the patients was seriously ill and they seemed to be recovering. He said they tested positive for influenza but added that there was "no guarantee" the students had swine flu, according to a report by The Associated Press.
The WHO declared the flu a "public health event of international concern." WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan urged greater worldwide surveillance for any unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness.
International experts will convene tomorrow to advise WHO whether to raise the current pandemic alert level due to the new flu virus in Mexico and the United States, a WHO spokesman said. "We need more epidemiological evidence from Mexico before the experts would be in a position to advise on a pandemic change," WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told Reuters yesterday.
While all the deaths so far have been in Mexico, the flu is spreading in the United States. Eleven cases were confirmed in California, Kansas and Texas, and eight schoolchildren in New York City caught a type A influenza virus that health officials say is likely to be the swine flu.
Countries across Asia, which have had to grapple with deadly viruses like H5N1 bird flu and SARS in recent years, snapped into action. At airports and other border checkpoints in Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan, officials screened travelers for any flu-like symptoms. In China, officials assured people that conventional measures in place were adequate to contain the new threat.
Argentina declared a health alert, requiring anyone arriving on flights from Mexico to advise if they had flu-like symptoms. Russia imposed curbs on meat imports from Mexico, some U.S. states and the Caribbean, while the United Arab Emirates said it was considering similar action.
In Brussels, the European Commission said no cases of the new swine flu had been reported so far in Europe. "Until now we have no reported cases in Europe. We are following very closely the situation as it evolves," a spokeswoman said. In France, two people returning from Mexico who had flu-like symptoms were being tested, French public health director Didier Houssin said. A British Airways cabin crew member was taken to hospital in London after developing flu-like symptoms on a flight from Mexico, but tests later cleared him of swine flu.
In the first suspected swine flu case in the Middle East, a 26-year-old Israeli man has been hospitalized upon returning from Mexico on suspicion of contracting the potentially fatal strain, hospital officials told Agence France-Presse yesterday.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama's health is fine a little more than a week after he traveled to Mexico, the White House said Saturday.
WHAT IS SWINE FLU
A swine flu outbreak that appears to have caused fatalities in humans prompted the World Health Organization over weekend to urge countries around the world to be alert for suspicious cases of influenza. Here are some facts about swine flu:
* Swine flu is a highly contagious acute respiratory disease normally found in pigs. It spreads through tiny particles in the air or by direct contact. According to WHO, it tends to infect large numbers of a given pig population, killing between 1 and 4 percent of those affected. Not every animal infected displays symptoms.
* People usually become infected through contact with pigs, though some cases of LIMITED human-to-human transmission have been reported.
* WHO says properly handled and prepared pork products are safe to eat. The swine flu virus dies when cooked at temperatures of 160F/70C or higher.
* No vaccine exists for humans. In any case, the flu virus evolves quickly, meaning that vaccines are soon obsolete. Health officials say there is no suggestion that the vaccine prepared for seasonal flu will protect against swine flu.