Governments around the world acted to stem a possible flu pandemic yesterday, as a virus that has killed 103 people in Mexico and spread to northward was confirmed to have reached Europe.
While the swine flu virus has so far killed no one outside Mexico, the fact that it has proved able to spread quickly between humans has raised fears that the world may finally be facing the flu pandemic that scientists say is long overdue.
Shares and oil prices fell in Asia and Europe, as investors feared a further shock to an already fragile global economy, if trade flows are curbed and manufacturing is hit.
Spain became the first country in Europe to confirm a case of swine flu when a man who returned from a trip to Mexico last week was found to have the virus.
But his condition, like that of 20 cases identified in the US and six in Canada, was not serious. A New Zealand teacher and around a dozen students who recently returned from Mexico were also being treated as likely mild cases.
Cases of the flu, which has components of classic avian, human and swine flu viruses but has not actually been seen in pigs, were also suspected in Britain, France, Italy and Israel.
Many countries have stepped up surveillance at airports and ports, using thermal cameras and sensors to identify people with fever, and the WHO has opened its 24-hour “war room” command center.
The EU’s health chief urged citizens to avoid non-essential travel to areas affected by swine flu, and the European Commission called an urgent meeting of health ministers.
The US declared a public health emergency on Sunday. Although most cases outside Mexico were relatively mild, a top official at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said she feared there might be US fatalities.
US President Barack Obama yesterday urged Americans to remain calm saying the illness was a “cause for concern” but not alarm.
“This is obviously a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert. But it is not a cause for alarm,” Obama told a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences.
But top US disease control officials yesterday rejected as unwarranted an EU warning that appeared to call on Europeans to avoid travel to the US, Mexico and other areas hit by the outbreak.
The WHO has declared the flu a “public health emergency of international concern” that could become a pandemic, or global outbreak of a serious disease.
Its emergency committee was due to decide yesterday whether to raise its pandemic alert level, currently at 3 on a scale of 1 to 6.
“If we go to phase 4 because of the swine flu virus, it basically means that we believe that a potential pandemic virus has potentially shown it can transmit from person to person and cause large outbreaks,” WHO Acting Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda said on Sunday.
In Mexico, life has slowed dramatically in cities as schools have been closed and public events called off to slow the spread of the virus. The city government is considering halting public transport.
Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said on Sunday that the flu had killed 103 people in Mexico, and about 400 people had been admitted hospital. But he noted that a majority of infected patients had recovered.
The Mexican government will get US$205 million from the World Bank, including US$25 million immediately, to combat the swine flu epidemic.