WHO raises swine flu alert to 'pandemic level 5'
The World Health Organization has raised its pandemic alert for swine flu to the second highest level, meaning that it believes a global outbreak of the disease is imminent.
WHO says the phase 5 alert means there is sustained human-to-human spread in at least two countries. It also signals that efforts to produce a vaccine will be ramped up.
WHO has confirmed human cases of swine flu in Mexico, the United States, Canada, Britain, Israel, New Zealand and Spain. Mexico and the U.S. have reported deaths.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan made the decision Wednesday to raise the alert level from phase 4 — signifying transmission in only one country — after reviewing the latest scientific evidence on the outbreak.
"It is important to take this very seriously," Chan told a press conference watched around the globe on Wednesday.
As fear and uncertainty about the disease ricocheted around the globe, nations took all sorts of precautions, some more useful than others.
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. And Asian nations greeted returning airport travelers with teams of medical workers and carts of disinfectants, eager to keep swine flu from infecting their continent.
In Mexico City, the epicenter of the epidemic, the mayor said Wednesday the outbreak seemed to be stabilizing and he was considering easing the citywide shutdown that closed schools, restaurants, concert halls and sports arenas.
Swine flu is suspected of killing more than 150 people in Mexico and sickening over 2,400 there.
Nearly 100 cases have now been confirmed in the U.S. across 11 states, and health officials reported Wednesday that a 23-month-old Mexican boy had died in Texas.
Across Europe, Germany confirmed three swine flu cases and Austria one, while the number of confirmed cases rose to five in Britain and ten in Spain.
WHO conducted a scientific review Wednesday to determine exactly what is known about how the disease spreads, how it affects human health and how it can be treated.
The U.S., the European Union and other countries have discouraged nonessential travel to Mexico. Cuba suspended all regular and charter flights from Mexico to the island but was still allowing airlines to return travelers to Mexico.
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 its Christian minority.
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.
“(We can make) sure that people are isolated and perhaps detained if they don’t cooperate and are showing symptoms,” said Health Minister Nicola Roxon.