Swine flu uncertainty continues

Swine flu uncertainty continues

Two more countries confirmed swine flu cases today as fear and uncertainty about the disease circled the globe.

The US reported the first death outside Mexico and the World Health Organisation called another emergency meeting saying there was no sign of the spread slowing.

However, in spite of near-hysteria in some countries, the overall confirmed worldwide death toll from the virus remained in single figures at eight.

The first outside Mexico was a 23-month-old Mexican boy who had travelled with his family to Houston, Texas.

Germany and Austria were the latest to confirm cases of swine flu.

Britain closed a school after a 12-year-old girl was found to have the disease.

Egypt slaughtered all its pigs and the central African nation of Gabon became the latest nation to ban pork imports, despite assurances that swine flu was not related to eating pork.

Cuba eased its flight ban, deciding just to block flights coming in from Mexico. Asian nations greeted returning airport travellers with teams of medical workers and carts of disinfectants, eager to keep swine flu from infecting their continent.

In Mexico City, the centre of the epidemic, the mayor said the outbreak seemed to be stabilising and he was considering easing the city-wide shutdown that closed schools, restaurants, concert halls and sports arenas.

Swine flu is suspected of killing more than 150 people in Mexico and infecting 2,400.

WHO confirmed at least 114 cases in nine countries. More than half of those - 66 – are in the US, and health officials there reported that a 23-month-old Mexican boy had died in Texas from the disease.

Across Europe, Germany confirmed three swine flu cases and Austria one, while the number of confirmed cases rose to five in Britain and four in Spain.

In Geneva, WHO convened its emergency committee to discuss, among other things, the current pandemic alert level. It now stands at phase 4, two levels below the threshold for a full pandemic outbreak.

It followed a scientific review to determine exactly what is known about how the disease spreads, how it affects human health and how it can be treated. Experts will took part via phone from the US, Mexico and other affected countries.

WHO flu chief Dr Keiji Fukuda said that developments in the disease were moving the agency closer to raising its alert to phase 5, indicating widespread human-to-human transmission.

Germany’s national disease control centre, the Robert Koch Institute, said the country’s three cases include a 22-year-old woman hospitalised in Hamburg, a man in his late 30s at a hospital in Regensburg, north of Munich, and a 37-year-old woman from another Bavarian town. All three had recently returned from Mexico.

Austria’s health ministry said a 28-year-old woman who recently returned from a month-long trip to Guatemala via Mexico City and Miami has the virus but is recovering.

In addition to a couple in Scotland who got swine flu on their Mexican honeymoon, new British cases included a 12-year-old girl in Torbay.

The other two cases were adults in London and in Birmingham. All three had visited Mexico, were receiving anti-viral drugs and were responding well to treatment.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy met Cabinet ministers to discuss swine flu and his health minister said France will ask the European Union to suspend flights to Mexico.

The US, the European Union and other countries have discouraged non-essential travel to Mexico.

New Zealand’s number of swine flu cases rose to 14, 13 of them among a school group that recently returned from Mexico. Officials said the swine flu strain infecting the students is the same as that in Mexico. All were responding well to antiviral drugs and in voluntary quarantine at home.

New Zealand has 44 other possible cases, with tests under way.

Mexico was taking drastic measures to fight the outbreak. It closed all archaeological sites and allowed restaurants in the capital to only serve takeout food in an aggressive bid to stop gatherings where the virus can spread. Schools remained closed until at least May 6.

A regional beach soccer championship in Mexico was postponed and all Mexican first-division soccer games this weekend will be played with no audiences. Cruise lines were avoiding Mexican ports and holiday tour groups are cancelling holiday charter flights there.

Egypt’s government ordered the slaughter of all pigs in the country as a precaution, though no swine flu cases have been reported there. Egypt’s overwhelmingly Muslim population does not eat pork, but farmers raise up to 350,000 pigs for the Christian minority.

Experts maintain the disease is not spread by eating pork, and farmers were to be allowed to sell the meat from the slaughtered animals.

In Australia, officials were testing more than 100 people with flu symptoms for the virus and the government gave health authorities wide powers to contain contagious diseases.

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