Swine flu hits the heart of continental Europe

Germany confirmed three cases of swine flu on Wednesday——two women aged 22 and 37 and a man in his late thirties—the eighth country where the virus has been found, but reported deaths remained confined to Mexico nearly a week after the threat of a pandemic emerged.

Mexico’s government says up to 159 people have been killed by the virus there. Cases of swine flu have also been confirmed in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Israel, Britain, Spain and Germany, which said a man who recently returned from holiday in Mexico had tested positive for the new H1N1 strain.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it may raise its pandemic alert level to phase five—the second highest—if it was confirmed that infected people in at least two countries were spreading the new disease to other people in a sustained way.

But with no deaths outside Mexico so far, Keiji Fukuda, acting WHO assistant director for health security and environment, said it could be a “very mild pandemic”, adding, however, that influenza “moves in ways we cannot predict”.

Stock markets in Asia and Europe rose on Wednesday, partly on optimism the world could be spared a major deadly pandemic.

Considerable uncertainty remained.

“The sentiment is not one of panic but that of caution,” said Alex Wong, director with Ample Finance Group in Hong Kong.

“There is no indication on how bad the situation may get, so investors are guarded about taking new positions.”

Mexico the epicentre
Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said on Tuesday night that more than 1 300 people were in hospitals, some of them seriously ill, out of a total of about 2 500 suspected cases.

“In the last few days there has been a decline [in cases],” Cordova told a news conference. “The death figures have remained more or less stable.”

Cordova said the victims ranged from children through young adults and middle-aged people to the elderly, a different pattern to common seasonal flu that mainly kills the elderly and people with other underlying conditions.

“The distribution doesn’t follow a fixed pattern,” he said.

US officials confirmed 65 cases, mostly mild, and no deaths.
But Richard Besser, acting director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, found little comfort in that.

“Numbers when it comes to an outbreak like this will change,” Besser said. “As we continue to investigate cases here, I expect that we will see deaths in this country.”

In a sign of how mild many cases outside Mexico have been, New Zealand gave the all-clear on Wednesday for a group of students and a teacher who caught the virus to return to school.

“[They] will be able to come out of isolation again,” said Deputy Director of Public Health Fran McGrath.

Australia’s government approved tough new powers to detain and disinfect people suspected of carrying swine flu, as authorities awaited test results from 91 suspected cases.

Health Minister Nicola Roxon sought approval for the new laws late on Tuesday, but said she had no intention yet of forcibly detaining people, unless the threat of a pandemic escalated.

“We are not about to take those steps, but we want to make sure that all the powers are there, that we are ready to act if this takes a dramatic turn for the worst,” Roxon told reporters. “It is a sensible precautionary step for us to take.”

Travel curbs
Argentina became the second country to ban flights to and from Mexico. Cuba imposed a similar measure earlier in the week.

In Singapore, thermal scanners were installed at airports to find people with fevers even though people infected with flu can spread it before and after they have a fever.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew told the Straits Times that nationals returning from Mexico would be quarantined.

The US, Canada and the European Union have advised against nonessential travel to Mexico and many companies have instituted their own restrictions.

Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean Cruises said they were temporarily suspending port calls in Mexico. Land-based tour groups were also calling off trips to the area’s beaches.

Mexico shut down all its Mayan ruins and Aztec pyramids, dotted through central and southern Mexico, until further notice.

Mexico City was unusually quiet with schools closed. Many took their children in to work, including a ruling party lawmaker whose children spent the day in Congress.

As suspected cases began to crop up across Central America, El Salvador began sending nurses to check buses of Salvadoran migrants being deported from Mexico for flu-like symptoms.

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said pork, soybean and corn prices had fallen in the last two days and criticised what he said were illogical restrictions on pork.

Ten countries have put restrictions on imports of US pork or swine, including Russia, China, the Philippines, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Serbia, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates and Ecuador. US Trade Representative Ron Kirk praised the Japanese government for publicly stating it would not ban US pork.

“We want to make sure that a handful of our trading partners don’t take advantage of this legitimate concern over public health and engage in behaviour that could also damage the world’s economy,” Kirk said at a news conference.—Reuters

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