Health chiefs ponder options as swine flu spreads

Canada became the third country to confirm human cases of swine flu as global health officials considered whether to raise the global pandemic alert level.

Nations from New Zealand to Spain also reported suspected cases, and some warned citizens against travel to North America while others planned quarantines, tightened rules on pork imports and tested airline passengers for fevers.

The six Canadian cases in Nova Scotia and British Columbia all had links to people who had travelled to Mexico, and all are the same swine flu strain.

The six people have recovered, said Dr David Butler-Jones, Canada’s chief public health officer.

But “these are probably not the last cases we’ll see in Canada,” he said.

The news follows the World Health Organisation’s decision to declare the outbreak first detected in Mexico and the United States a “public health emergency of international concern”.

A senior World Health Organisation official said the agency’s emergency committee will meet for a second time tomorrow to examine the spread of the virus before deciding whether to increase the alert for a possible pandemic, or global epidemic.

The same strain of the A/H1N1 swine flu virus has been detected in several locations in Mexico and the United States, and it appears to be spreading directly from human to human, said Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director-general in charge of health security.

Mexico’s federal health secretary said the disease has killed 103 people and made more than 1,600 ill since April 13.

US officials said the virus has been found in New York, California, Texas, Kansas and Ohio, but no fatalities have been reported.

Governments including China, Russia and Taiwan began planning to put anyone with symptoms of the deadly virus under quarantine.

Others were increasing their screening of pigs and pork imports from the Americas or banning them outright despite health officials’ reassurances that it was safe to eat thoroughly cooked pork.

Some nations issued travel warnings for Mexico and the United States.

WHO’s emergency committee is still trying to determine exactly how the virus has spread, Mr Fukuda said

“Right now we have cases occurring in a couple of different countries and in multiple locations,” he said. “But we also know that in the modern world that cases can simply move around from single locations and not really become established.”

Raising the pandemic alert phase could entail issuing specific recommendations to countries on how to halt the disease. So far, WHO has only urged governments to step up their surveillance of suspicious outbreaks.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan called the outbreak a public health emergency of “pandemic potential” because the virus can pass from human to human.

Her agency was considering whether to issue nonbinding recommendations on travel and trade restrictions, and even border closures. It is up to governments to decide whether to follow the advice.

“Countries are encouraged to do anything that they feel would be a precautionary measure,” WHO spokeswoman Aphaluck Bhatiasevi said. “All countries need to enhance their monitoring.”

New Zealand said 10 students who took a school trip to Mexico “likely” had swine flu, and today it said three students in a second group had mild flu symptoms and were being tested.

Israel said a man who had recently visited Mexico had been taken to hospital while authorities try to determine whether he had the disease.

French Health Ministry officials investigated four possible cases of swine flu, but three were found to be negative. In Brazil, a hospital said a patient who arrived from Mexico was being treated for some swine flu symptoms.

Spanish authorities said seven suspected cases were under observation.

Hong Kong and Taiwan said visitors who came back from flu-affected areas with fevers would be quarantined. China said anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms within two weeks of arrival from an affected area had to report to authorities.

A Russian health agency said any passenger from North America running a fever would be quarantined until the cause of the fever is determined.

Tokyo’s Narita airport installed a device to test the temperatures of passengers arriving from Mexico.

New Zealand health officials started screening passengers arriving at Auckland International Airport from the United States and other parts of North America.

Bolivia said it would start today to screen passengers coming from Mexico and the United States and isolate any found to be infected.

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