World health officials yesterday admitted they were powerless to halt the spread of swine flu and ratcheted up their pandemic alert level as the number of affected countries rose sharply.
As Mexico, epicenter of the outbreak, said 152 people were now believed to have died from the virus, the number of known cases in the US more than doubled, while six other countries said they had confirmed their first casualties.
Authorities in Asia — where memories of the SARS outbreak in 2003 remain fresh — tried to contain the spread of the virus, screening air passengers from affected areas and advising against non-essential travel to Mexico.
But the WHO said that border screenings “don’t work,” while the EU’s health commissioner said there was no need for travel restrictions.
“Border controls do not work. Screening doesn’t work,” WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said in Geneva.
“If a person has been exposed or infected ... the person might not be symptomatic at the airport,” he said. “We learn as we go on. SARS was a huge learning experience for all of us.”
Keiji Fukuda, acting WHO assistant director-general for health, security and the environment, said late on Monday that given the widespread nature of the virus, all corners of the world are at potential risk.
“I think that in this age of global travel, where people move around in airplanes so quickly, there is no region to which this virus could not spread,” Fukuda said.
The outbreak was too “widespread to make containment a feasible” strategy, he added.
British tour operators, including Thomas Cook, halted holidays to Mexico after two people who returned to Scotland from a honeymoon in the resort town of Cancun fell ill with the swine flu virus.
Apart from Britain, the only confirmed case of the virus in Europe was in Spain, but suspected cases were being probed in Germany and Austria.
A total of 44 people are thought to have been infected in the US while Canada has six cases.
And in a further illustration of its global reach, Israel and New Zealand both confirmed their first swine flu patients.
In Asia, Thai medical authorities placed a woman in quarantine in hospital while South Korea investigated a “probable” victim.
Australia meanwhile probed 70 possible cases.
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