Health officials act to prevent pandemic; eight also infected by the swine virus in US
Mexico City - A new strain of flu that has killed as many as 68 people in Mexico has had health officials scrambling to avert a possible global outbreak.
As the Mexican government axed public events and shut schools, libraries and cinemas, World Health Organisation (WHO) experts were dispatched to Mexico.
More than 1,000 people there, and eight in the United States, are suspected to be down with that strain of flu.
WHO director-general Margaret Chan warned yesterday that the new multi-strain swine flu virus had 'pandemic potential'.
'A new virus is responsible,' she said after an emergency meeting of flu experts in Geneva. 'It is a serious situation which needs to be closely followed.'
Separately a US health official warned that it may be too late to contain the new virus.
'It is clear that this is widespread. And that is why we have let you know that we cannot contain the spread of this virus,' Dr Anne Schuchat of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told reporters.
Dr Chan said it was too early to say whether a pandemic - defined as a global infectious disease outbreak for which there is no immunity - will actually occur.
But the UN agency has advised countries worldwide to look out for similar outbreaks following the discovery of related strains on both sides of the US-Mexico border.
Scores have died in Mexico from severe pneumonia after infection. At least 24 new suspected cases reported yesterday in Mexico City, a city of 20 million people.
Tests on some of the victims found that they had contracted a new version of the A/H1N1 flu virus, which is a combination of bird, pig and human viruses.
'It has pandemic potential because it is infecting people,' said Dr Chan. 'However, we cannot say on the basis of currently available laboratory, epidemiological, and clinical evidence whether or not it will indeed cause a pandemic.'
As the new strain was still poorly understood and the situation evolving quickly, it was too soon to announce any travel advisories or to advise drugmakers to switch to producing a new vaccine, she told a teleconference.
The CDC said some of the samples from Mexican patients were a genetic match of the strain seen in eight people in California and Texas, who later recovered.
In New York City, health officials were looking into what had sickened scores of students who fell ill with flu-like symptoms.
The French government said suspected cases are likely to occur in the coming days because of global air travel.
Most of the dead were young healthy adults. That alarms health officials because seasonal flus cause most of their deaths among infants and elderly people, but pandemic influenza - like the 1918 Spanish flu which killed millions - often strikes young, healthy people the hardest.
Influenza can spread quickly when a new strain emerges because no one has natural immunity.
Yesterday was the first time Dr Chan has convened such a crisis panel since the procedure was created almost two years ago.
An official source said yesterday the panel is expected to declare the outbreak 'a public health emergency of international concern'. With that, the WHO would have to decide next on measures such as travel advisories, trade restrictions and border closures.
The panel is also likely to ratchet up the WHO's six-phase flu pandemic alert level. It is now set at Phase 3 - meaning there is no or very limited risk of a new virus spreading from human to human.
US health officials are urging anyone with a fever, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath or muscle and joint pain to seek medical attention.
The WHO stands ready with antivirals to combat the outbreaks in Mexico. But the authorities have a sizeable supply of Tamiflu, which has proved effective against the new virus, the UN agency said.
Mr William Schaffner, a US flu expert, said the new strain is the biggest threat of a pandemic since the emergence of the H5N1 strain, which has killed millions of birds and hundreds of people.
AP, Reuters, AFP
[For years, the world has been warned of an impending outbreak when H5N1 virus mutates to a humanly transmissible virus. Then what strikes is the H1N1 strain... in Mexico! Not Asia as predicted. Truly nature has it's own plans, and trying to anticipate outbreaks and the next flu epidemic is like trying to win Toto. ]