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.


Chuck said...

Saw a comment from the WH that even this isn't going to make the US close it's border with Mexico.

Anonymous said...

Right now, the virus has met two of the three prerequisites for a pandemic. It mutated to a form that could cross over to humans, and it can be spread from person to person. The third and final requirement for a real problem is a mutation which would cause increased lethality. The 1918 pandemic is believed to have started on a hog farm in the midwest, and followed exactly that sequence of events. The vaccines we have on hand are not effective against this strain. There are only two facilities in the U.S. that produce vaccines against flu and the process is time consuming. This could get out of hand rapidly.

cube said...

Only time will tell. But don't fear, the Obama administration is on the case.

Ducky's here said...

Close the borders to an air born virus.

I love the far right, always thinking.

Papa Frank said...

Ducky -- closing the border would help. It would not solve the entire problem but it would slow it down if infected people were not coming over the border and mingling around. Just because something doesn't solve an entire problem it does not mean that there is not merit in heading in the right direction.

Left Coast Rebel said...

I would say that this could reach pandemic proportions. I live in San Diego and am very concerned about this, our Border is as porous as ever. By the time the admin figured out that closing the border would protect americans (they probably still wouldn't do it), it would be too late.

Anonymous said...

It could be bad, but I'm afraid people are panicking too quickly. As a microbiologist I can say that public health officials have been planning for just this sort of scenario. Ducky: You need to study the transmission methods of influenza before you speak.

Ducky's here said...

Okay, what about the poor air quality in Mexico City. Has that got anything to do with the localized severity?

If it does maybe the right wants us to relax clean air standards?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I hate that Peruvian music, too!

Z said...

Ducky, these comments are beneath you, truly.

Don't look now, but when the illegal immigrant who just snuck in is standing next to you, air counts. I've been to MX City, and HATED IT the whole time, frankly...the air's so bad I'd have thought it would KILL a flu virus. !

Chuck; this is an administration which found it awful that the Iraq war has 'created more terrorists' and is now exposing memos and photos of our 'torturing' people...THAT ought to help, huh?...who could be surprised at ANYTHING they do now?

Brooke said...

Good grief, Ducky. It's not as if an airborne virus is going to float miles to get us... Closing the border would stop infected illegals from coming here!

I, for one, wonder if this virus is engineered...

The Merry Widow said...

Brooke-My thought, 3 strains of swine flu, from 3 different continents? Plus bird and human strains?
I'm wondering where that dead rat smell is coming from...