Mexico shuts schools as WHO chiefs discuss raising flu alert level

Mexico ordered all schools across the country to close today as the death toll from the swine virus outbreak climbed to 149.

Meanwhile the World Health Organisation said there were now 73 confirmed cases of the disease worldwide and said it was “very concerned” about its spread.

Spain became the first outside North America to confirm a case of swine flu and the European Union health commissioner urged people to postpone non-essential travel to affected parts of the United States and Mexico affected.

WHO said the laboratory-confirmed cases included 40 in the United States, 26 in Mexico, six in Canada and one in Spain.

Spain confirmed its first swine flu case as suspected cases from New Zealand to Israel were raising concern that the new virus was spreading rapidly.

Mexico still appeared the centre, with 1,614 suspected cases, according to Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova.

He said schools at all levels nationwide would be closed until May 6. Schools had already been suspended in Mexico City and five of Mexico’s 32 states.

WHO held an emergency meeting today chaired by Director-General Dr Margaret Chan to decide in a matter of hours whether to raise its pandemic alert level.

“Today we’ve seen an increased number of confirmed cases in several countries,” a spokesman said. “WHO is very concerned about the number of cases that are appearing, and the fact that more and more cases are appearing in different countries.”

He said the health body was recommending calm and common sense – “if people feel sick, if people feel they are suffering from some kind of ailment like flu (then) they need to go and see a doctor.”

Raising the pandemic alert level to level four from the current three would be an official recognition that the disease was being passed among people. The move could lead governments to set trade, travel and other restrictions aimed at limiting the disease’s spread.

“Phase four means that there is only really transmission in one given community, and that if we see cases elsewhere then cases are either sporadic or imported from the original location,” a WHO spokesman said.

“In phase four, there’s still the idea that we might be able to mount a containment operation. In phase five you would already be seeing human-to-human transmission in communities in various locations.”

He said there was no guarantee the committee would recommend a phase change, but the situation was urgent enough to call the meeting a day early.

He noted the Centres for Disease Control in the United States was already laying the ground work for creating a vaccine targeted at the Mexican strain of the virus.

“We understand that it has already taken wild virus and has produced a vaccine virus strain and is currently growing this strain, this virus, in eggs, which is a first step in the vaccine production process,” he said.

If the committee decides to go to phase five, that would be the signal for commercial vaccine manufacturers to switch to production of a new pandemic vaccine from the seasonal variety.

Having a new vaccine ready for distribution to people will take five or six months, he said.

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