Sunday, April 26, 2009

World on alert

Confirmed cases of swine flu are on the rise in the US and Mexico, raising concerns internationally. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MEXICO CITY - GOVERNMENTS around the world rushed on Sunday to check the spread of a new type of swine flu that has killed up to 81 people in Mexico and infected around a dozen in the United States.

Mexicans huddled inside their homes while US hospitals tracked patients with flu symptoms and other countries imposed health checks at airports as the World Health Organization warned the virus had the potential to become a pandemic.

Announced on Friday, the outbreak has snowballed into a monster headache for Mexico, already grappling with a violent drug war and economic slowdown, and has quickly become one of the biggest global health scares in years.

Mexico's tourism and retail sectors could be badly hit by the crisis and a new pandemic would deal a major blow to a world economy already knocked into its worst recession in decades by the crisis in financial markets.

The World Health Organization declared the flu a 'public health event of international concern.' WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan urged greater worldwide surveillance for any unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness.

The new flu strain, a mixture of various swine, bird and human viruses, poses the biggest risk of a large-scale pandemic since avian flu surfaced in 1997, killing several hundred people. A 1968 'Hong Kong' flu pandemic killed about 1 million people globally.

Argentina declared a health alert, requiring anyone arriving on flights from Mexico to advise if they had flu-like symptoms. As far away as Hong Kong and Japan health officials stepped up checks of sickly travellers.

New flu strains can spread quickly because no one has natural immunity and a vaccine takes months to develop. A British Airways cabin crew member was hospitalized in London after developing flu-like symptoms on a flight from Mexico.

Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said the swine flu had killed at least 20 and possibly as many as 81 people in Mexico, and more than 1,300 people were being tested for suspected infection. Most of the dead were aged 25 to 45, a worrying sign because a hallmark of past pandemics has been high fatalities among healthy young adults.

The government earmarked US$450,000 (S$670,455) to cover fighting the flu, and Calderon issued the government special powers to run tests on sick people and order them isolated. -- REUTERS

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