WASHINGTON – The World Health Organization took the unprecedented step Wednesday of issuing a warning that the world could be on the verge of a pandemic, as new cases of swine flu mounted and the first death was reported in the United States.
The Geneva-based agency raised the pandemic threat alert level for the second time in three days, elevating the warning to one notch below a full-scale pandemic, after concluding that the virus was causing sustained outbreaks in the United States and Mexico.
The heightened alert is intended to prompt every nation to activate an emergency response plan, pharmaceutical companies to increase production of antiviral drugs and help speed development of a vaccine and bankers to help poor countries afford measures to fight the virus, officials said.
The dramatic pronouncement came as officials in Maryland announced that they were investigating six probable cases of the disease and at least 10 more were under investigation at the University of Delaware.
The death from the disease in the United States involved a 22-month old boy from Mexico City who succumbed Monday at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, where he had been rushed after falling ill. The child, who had unspecified “underlying health problems,” according to U.S. health officials, had taken a flight with his parents from Mexico City to Matamoras, Mexico, on April 4 to visit family in Brownsville, Texas.
After developing a fever on April 8, the child was hospitalized in Brownsville and then, with his condition worsening, was transferred the next day to Houston.
While state health officials were still trying to determine when and where the boy became infected and how many people came into contact with him and his family, they said no other relatives or anyone else had fallen ill.
“Texans need to know there is no cause for panic and Texans can be assured that the state will take every necessary precaution to protect the lives of our citizens,” said Gov. Rick Perry, as he issued a disaster declaration to help respond to the outbreak. Officials suspended high school sports events statewide until May 11 and shut more schools, sending more than 53,000 students home for at least two weeks.
U.S. authorities were monitoring the spread of the virus carefully, President Barack Obama said, and he urged local authorities to report all suspected cases and close schools where infections are reported.
One day after being confirmed as Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius stressed the government was “determined to fight this outbreak and do everything we can to protect the American people.” However, she added: “We expect to see more illness, more hospitalizations and unfortunately, we’re likely to see additional deaths.”
Public health authorities have been worried the virus would start producing the kind of severe pneumonia and deaths that so far had been limited to Mexico, where the epidemic began. “The clinical picture in the United States is looking a bit more like the Mexican situation,” said Nancy Cox, a flu expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The number of known cases in the U.S. is at least 91.
With the virus now clearly being transmitted person-to-person in the United States, WHO officials said the outbreak appeared to be on a trajectory toward reaching the highest alert – phase 6 – which is marked by sustained transmission in at least two regions of the world, the agency’s definition of a pandemic.
“It’s clear the virus is spreading and we don’t see any evidence of this slowing down at this point,” said Keiji Fakuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general interim for health security and environment.
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