/ 21 July 2009

Global death toll from swine flu hits more than 700

The worldwide death toll from swine flu has doubled in the past month, reaching more than 700 since the start of the outbreak, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Tuesday.

The United Nations health agency also said it is examining how countries can tackle the explosion in cases predicted this fall, when students and workers in the northern hemisphere return from summer vacation.

Experts say closing schools can help break the chain of transmission, though at risk of considerable economic cost according to a paper to be published in next month’s edition of medical journal The Lancet.

”School closures is one of the mitigation measures that could be considered by countries,” WHO spokesperson Aphaluck Bhatiasevi told reporters in Geneva.

The agency has stressed that although the disease is ”unstoppable” in the long term, slowing its spread is important to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed by the sheer number of new cases.

WHO stopped asking governments to report infections last week, saying it was ”extremely difficult, if not impossible,” for countries with large numbers of cases to keep track of each new one.

But the Stockholm-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said on Monday there had been more than 2 300 new reported cases in 24 hours, taking the global total to almost 140 000. Many more could have gone undetected as in most cases the virus causes only mild illness that does not require medical treatment.

The Lancet paper, written by researchers at London’s Imperial College, argues that school closures would allow more time for a vaccine to be produced and administered widely. Estimates for when this might be the case vary from September to the end of the year.

Slowing the pandemic would also limit the burden on national healthcare systems and reduce the peak in worker absenteeism, the paper argues.

France is among the countries reportedly considering school closures, though decisions would be made on a a case-by-case basis, Le Parisien daily reported on Thursday.

France’s Education Ministry has already prepared about 300 hours of educational programming for radio and television to allow those affected by school closures to follow their lessons, the newspaper said. — Sapa-AP