April 29, 2009 in Nation/World

Swine flu alert nears pandemic level

Associated Press
 
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How WHO measures a pandemic
The World Health Organization has six phases of pandemic alert to assess the potential for a new global flu outbreak.

Phase 6: More outbreaks in at least two regions of the world; the pandemic is under way.

Phase 5: The virus has spread into at least two countries and is causing even bigger outbreaks.

Phase 4: The new virus can cause sustained outbreaks and is adapting itself to human spread.

Phase 3: An animal or mixed animal-human virus has caused occasional cases or small clusters of disease, but the virus does not spread easily. The world is currently in phase 3, with H5N1 bird flu viruses sporadically infecting humans and occasionally spreading from human to human.

Phase 2: An animal flu virus has caused infections in humans in the past and is considered to be a potential pandemic threat.

Phase 1: There are no viruses circulating in animals that have been reported to cause infections in humans.

With the World Health Organization raising its pandemic alert level to 5, that signals that the swine flu virus is becoming increasingly adept at spreading between humans. That would signal to governments they should ready their pandemic preparedness plans and increase detection systems for potential cases.

With an elevated pandemic alert level, WHO might also issue travel advisories, warning against nonessential travel to regions battling outbreaks, trade restrictions, the cancellation of public events or border closures.

During the SARS outbreak in 2003, WHO travel advisories drastically slashed travel to affected regions, curtailing the outbreak.

WASHINGTON — The Geneva-based World Trade Organization on Wednesday raised its alert level for the fast-spreading swine flu to its next-to-highest notch, signaling a global pandemic could be imminent.

The move came after the virus spread to at least 10 U.S. states from coast to coast and swept deeper into Europe.

“It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic,” said WHO Director General Margaret Chan. “We do not have all the answers right now but we will get them.”

In the United States, President Barack Obama mourned the first U.S. death, a Mexican toddler who had traveled with his family to Texas. Total American cases surged to nearly 100, and Obama said wider school closings might be necessary.

In Mexico, where the flu is believed to have originated, officials said Wednesday the disease is now confirmed or suspected in 159 deaths, and nearly 2,500 illnesses.

There were no other deaths confirmed from the flu. But health officials in the United States and around the world braced for them.

Dr. Richard Besser, the acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in Atlanta there were 91 confirmed cases in ten states, with 51 in New York, 16 in Texas and 14 in California. Two cases have been confirmed in Kansas, Massachusetts and Michigan, while single cases have been reported in Arizona, Indiana, Nevada and Ohio.

State officials in Maine said laboratory tests had confirmed three cases in that state, although those had not yet been included in the CDC count. And the Pentagon said that a Marine in southern California had tested positive for the disease.

WHO has confirmed human cases of swine flu in Mexico, the United States, Canada, Britain, Israel, New Zealand and Spain.

Germany and Austria became the latest countries to report infections. Germany reported four cases on Wednesday, Austria one.

In Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was questioned closely by senators about whether the U.S. should close its border with Mexico, where the outbreak apparently began and the casualties have been the greatest. She repeated the administration’s position that questioning of people at borders and ports of entry was sufficient for now and said closing borders “has not been merited by the facts.”

The WHO said 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.

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