Are We on the Verge of a Pandemic?
Published Date: 26 April 2009
By Kate Foster
THE World Health Organisation was last night trying to find a way to halt the spread of a deadly new strain of flu across the world.
After a crisis meeting following the deaths of up to 68 people in Mexico, WHO declared swine flu could turn into a pandemic.
More than 1,000 others are reported to have been infected by the virus in Mexico. Health officials believe at least eight schoolchildren in New York have the virus. In addition residents of Kansas, Texas and California have developed symptoms, raising fears the outbreak could hit thousands more.
In London, a British Airways cabin crew member was admitted to hospital yesterday after arriving on a flight from Mexico City.
The flu combines genetic material from pigs, birds and humans in a way scientists have not seen before. The fact that many deaths are among young adults is a hallmark of pandemic flu. WHO says 12 of the Mexican cases have been laboratory confirmed as genetically identical to the swine flu virus detected in the US.
The global health body has said that so far there is no evidence of similar outbreaks elsewhere in the world. But it has advised other countries to look out following the discovery of related strains on both sides of the Mexico-US border. Further measures, such as travel restrictions, may be put in place if the virus spreads.
The virus appears to cause flu-like symptoms that can develop into severe pneumonia. Swine flu is endemic in pigs, but unlike bird flu is able to pass from human to human. There have been three major outbreaks around the world in the past century, including the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, in which the virus mutated into a human form in months, killing 50 million people worldwide.
A WHO spokesman said: "We are very, very concerned. We have what appears to be a novel virus and it has spread from human to human. It's all hands on deck at the moment.
"We do seem to have found incidents of the same illness on both sides of the border in various locations. We're not sure exactly of the transmission routes, where the initial infection came from, how efficient it is in transmitting."
WHO is also questioning why no one has died in the US so far, while there have been confirmed deaths in Mexico. Some parts of the Mexican capital, population 20 million, have ground to a standstill over the crisis. Most of the fatalities have occurred in the city. Mexican authorities have urged people to avoid hospitals unless they have a medical emergency. They also say the public should avoid customary greetings such as shaking hands or kissing.
At Mexico City's international airport, passengers were questioned to try to prevent anyone with flu symptoms from boarding aircraft and spreading the disease.
Mexico City officials said yesterday they are suspending all public events for another 10 days to try to contain the epidemic. A hotline set up the previous day fielded 2,366 calls from frightened city residents who suspected they might have the disease. The Mexican government has given the health department powers to isolate patients and inspect homes, incoming travellers and baggage.
The United Nations health agency has warned for several years that a new virus strain could spark an influenza pandemic that could sweep the globe, killing millions.
This outbreak is particularly alarming as deaths have occurred in at least four regions of Mexico and because the victims have not been vulnerable infants and elderly. The 1918 outbreak also first struck the young and healthy.
Scientists say the current seasonal flu vaccine is not believed to offer protection against this swine flu. But anti-viral drug Tamiflu appears to be fully effective against the H1N1 virus. However, WHO says it is too soon to advise drug firms to switch to producing a new vaccine.
What is a pandemic?
A pandemic is an epidemic of an infectious disease that spreads through populations across a region or across the globe. The criteria for a pandemic are that the disease is new, infects humans, like the swine flu virus, left, and causes serious illness and spreads easily. One major fear is that a virus will spread from birds or animals to humans, creating a new highly lethal strain.