Swine flu sparks global concern; Mexico epicenter of outbreak

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano briefs reporters at the White House Sunday.
Health officials around the world worked to contain what appears to be a spreading swine flu outbreak early Monday, while one out of every five residents of Mexico’s most populous city wore masks to protect themselves against the virus.

Mexico seems to be the epicenter of the outbreak, where as many as 103 deaths are thought to have been caused by swine flu, the country’s health minister said. An additional 1,614 reported cases have been reported in the country. So far, however, only 18 cases have been confirmed by laboratory tests in Mexico and reported to the World Health Organization. The United States stepped up preparations for a possible epidemic of the virus after 20 cases were confirmed, and Canada announced its first cases of the virus Sunday — six mild cases. Russia banned all meat imports from Mexico and the southern United States, and said it would screen incoming passengers from those two countries for swine flu by taking their temperatures. The WHO has called the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” Researchers are trying to determine how easily it can jump from person to person. And Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director-general, said it was too early to predict whether there will be a mild or serious pandemic. Mexico City closed all its schools and universities until further notice because of the virus, and military troops distributed 4 million filter masks in the city of 20 million residents. Watch efforts in Mexico to prevent spread of the virus » Mayor Marcelo Ebrard said he is wearing a mask, “in order to promote to people to use” it. “The potential damage for the city is very high,” Ebrard said. The streets of Mexico City were eerily quiet Sunday afternoon — a time when families are usually out strolling.

Public Health Emergency
According to the World Health Organization, a public health emergency is an occurence or imminent threat of illness or health conditions caused by bioterrorism, epidemic or pandemic disease, or highly fatal infectious agents or toxins that pose serious risk to a significant number of people.
At a White House news conference Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the emergency declaration is standard procedure — citing that one was declared for the inauguration and for recent flooding.

Officials have talked about shutting down the bus and subway system, and incoming international passengers at the country’s airports are asked on a form whether they have various symptoms that might indicate that they’re carrying the virus. Mexican Finance Minister Augustin Carstens said Sunday that the World Bank was lending his country $205 million to deal with the outbreak. In the United States, the largest number of cases was in New York City, New York, where the CDC confirmed cases in eight students at preparatory school. “Given the reports out of Mexico, I would expect that over time we’re going to see more severe disease in this country,” said Dr. Richard Besser, the CDC’s acting director. In Washington, the government declared a public health emergency — a step Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, “sounds more severe that really it is.”

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“This is standard operating procedure and allows us to free up federal state and local agencies and their resources for prevention and mitigation,” she said. Napolitano canceled a trip to the Czech Republic scheduled for this week in order to monitor swine flu preparations and response, two Obama administration officials said Sunday night. Meanwhile, Israel, New Zealand and Spain were investigating unconfirmed cases of swine flu. Concerns about the virus prompted Canada to issue a travel health notice and South Korea to say it will test airline passengers arriving from the United States.

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Japan is expected to convene a Cabinet meeting Monday to come up with measures to block the entry of the virus into the country. In New Zealand, officials said 22 students and three teachers, who returned from a three-week-long language trip to Mexico, might have been infected. The group remains quarantined at home, and Health Minister Tony Ryall said 10 students tested positive for influenza A — the general category of strains that includes the H1N1 swine flu. Watch how public health officials grade phases of pandemic alerts » In Spain, six people — all recently returned from Mexico — were being isolated in hospitals, the country’s health ministry said. And in Israel, doctors are running tests on a man who recently returned from Mexico with light flu symptoms. The H1N1 strain of swine flu is usually associated with pigs. When the flu spreads person-to-person, instead of from animals to humans, it can continue to mutate, making it harder to treat or fight off. iReport.com: Do you think we should be worried about swine flu Symptoms of swine flu include fever, lethargy, lack of appetite, coughing, runny nose, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, the CDC said. Learn more about swine flu and how to treat it » Common seasonal flu kills 250,000 to 500,000 people every year.

But what worries officials is that a new strain can spread fast because people do not have natural immunity and vaccines can take months to develop. In 1968, a “Hong Kong” flu pandemic killed about 1 million people worldwide. And in 1918, a “Spanish” flu pandemic killed as many as 100 million people.