Around the world today countries rushed to deal in their own way with swine flu fears.
Hong Kong assigned a team of scientists to find a quick test for the virus to raise global fears of a pandemic, following confirmed human cases of the disease in Mexico, United States and Canada.
A World Health Organisation spokesman said the new virus was spreading quickly in Mexico and the southern United States, and it could be expected to turn up anywhere.
“These are early days. It’s quite clear that there is a potential for this virus to become a pandemic and threaten globally,” he said.
“But we honestly don’t know,” he added. “We don’t know enough yet about how this virus operates. More work needs to be done.”
Mexico’s Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said the number of suspected swine flu cases in his country had climbed to 1,614 by late last night, including 103 deaths.
In New Zealand, Health Minister Tony Ryall said two students and a parent among a group of 15 that had just come back from a class trip to Mexico had mild flu and were being tested for swine flu. Yesterday nine students and one teacher from a separate group that also were in Mexico were thought to have swine flu.
Results from a WHO-registered laboratory were expected within days.
All the New Zealand students and teachers along with their families had voluntarily quarantined themselves at home.
Prime Minister John Key said everyone showing flu symptoms was being treated with Tamiflu as a precaution. Other passengers and crew on the suspect flights were also being given the antiviral drug.
Tests were also under way on people with flu-like symptoms in Israel, France and Spain.
In Hong Kong, Thomas Tsang, controller for territory’s Centre for Health Protection, said the government and universities aim to develop a quick test for the new flu strain in a week or two that will return results in four to six hours, compared to existing tests that can take two or three days.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan yesterday held teleconferences with staff and flu experts around the world, and urged governments to step up their surveillance of suspicious outbreaks.
Officials wasted no time taking that advice.
Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines dusted off thermal scanners used during the 2003 SARS crisis and were checking for signs of fever among passengers arriving at airports from North America. South Korea and Indonesia introduced similar screening.
In Malaysia, health workers wearing face masks took the temperatures of passengers as they arrived from a flight from Los Angeles.
Officials said travellers with flu-like symptoms would be given detailed health checks.
Russia, Hong Kong and Taiwan said visitors returning from flu-affected areas with fevers would be quarantined.
Australian Health Minister Nicola Roxon said pilots on international flights would be required to file a report noting any flu-like symptoms for passengers aboard their planes before being allowed to land in Australia.
China said anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms within two weeks of arrival had to report to authorities.
China and Russia banned imports of pork and pork products from Mexico and three US states that have reported cases of swine flu, and other governments were increasing their screening of pork imports.
Indonesia – the country hardest hit by bird flu – said it was banning all pork imports to prevent swine fever infections.
In Serbia, health officials said all international passengers arriving at airports in the capital of Belgrade and the southern city of Nis would be checked, interviewed and instructed where to go in case they develop any symptoms.
Many nations issued travel warnings for Mexico.
The United States has confirmed at least 11 cases of swine flu, and Canada six cases.
Many measures recalled those taken across Asia during the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic and used more recently to monitor bird flu.
Drawing on their fight against SARS, experts in Hong Kong warned that swine flu seems harder to detect early and may spread faster.
The virus could move between people before any symptoms show up, said John Simon, a scientific adviser to Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection.
“Border guardings, thermal imaging will not detect much of this flu when it eventually comes through because a lot of people will be incubating,” he said.
A New Zealand student who was among those affected said her group had stayed with Mexican families in their homes during the last few days of their trip, to better their Spanish language skills.
The WHO estimates that up to 500,000 people are travelling aboard planes at any given time, giving human-to-human viruses an easy way to spread globally quickly.