WHO raises pandemic alert level; more swine flu cases feared

Security guards outside the Mexico City Respiratory Hospital on Monday.
The World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert level Monday in response to the outbreak of swine flu that originated in Mexico, as the global count of confirmed cases increased and governments initiated various steps to try to stem the spread.

The number of cases confirmed by health officials worldwide totaled 82, most of them in the United States and Mexico, according to the WHO. But hundreds more cases are under examination, and Mexico has said 149 deaths may have resulted. “I would like the take the opportunity to express our condolences to those families who have lost a loved one to the epidemic,” Mexico’s health secretary, Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos, said Monday evening. But while he described the situation as an emergency, “it’s not a disaster situation.” Troops distributed 4 million filter masks in Mexico City, which has 20 million residents, and the country’s navy has opened its hospitals to flu patients, Cordova said. Mexican authorities have closed all schools until at least May 6. Officials are considering whether to suspend other public activities but are analyzing what economic effects could result, Cordova said. Watch Mexican officials discuss flu plan » The WHO’s decision to move its alert level from three to four on its six-level scale means the agency has determined the virus is capable of significant human-to-human transmission — a major step toward a flu pandemic, said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the agency’s assistant director-general. But he added, “a pandemic is not considered inevitable.”

Don’t Miss
U.S. prepares for possible swine flu epidemic

U.S. airlines waive fees for Mexico passengers

Watch videos on swine flu outbreak

Sanjay Gupta tweets on swine flu

Most cases have been in the United States, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 40 cases. Health officials in Texas said Monday evening that they had confirmed three new cases, and California said it had four, but the CDC had not yet included those in its totals. Only one U.S. case has required hospitalization, Dr. Richard Besser, the CDC’s acting director, said Monday. Besser said it was too early to say how severe future cases could be. “I fear that as we continue to look for cases, we are going to see cases in this country that are more severe — individuals who are hospitalized,” he said. “And I would not be surprised if we see deaths in this country.” Canada had confirmed six cases as of Monday, while Britain had two and Spain, one. None was life-threatening, officials there said.

Public Health Emergency
According to the World Health Organization, a public health emergency is an occurrence 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.

The U.S. government is urging travelers to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico because of the swine flu outbreak, and it has started distributing antiviral medications from its strategic stockpile in response to the outbreak, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said. The Food and Drug Administration issued emergency authorizations for the use of two of the most common antiviral drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza, late Monday, allowing their distribution by a broader range of health-care workers and loosening age limits for their use. Of the U.S. cases, 28 were among students at a preparatory school in Queens, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. The median age of all the U.S. cases is 16 years, Besser said. President Barack Obama said Monday that the swine flu outbreak is a “cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert,” but is not a “cause for alarm.” He added that the federal government is closely monitoring emerging cases and had declared a public health emergency as a “precautionary tool to ensure that we have the resources we need at our disposal to respond quickly and effectively.”

Dr. Gupta in Mexico

Dr. Sanjay Gupta reports from Mexico on the spread, treatment and prevention of the swine flu.
Monday 10 E.T.

see full schedule »

Meanwhile, Andorra Vassiliou, the European Union’s health commissioner, on Monday urged people “to avoid nonessential travel to the areas which are reported to be in the center of the clusters” of a swine flu outbreak. Watch CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta on the outbreak in Mexico » The EU later said that Vassiliou’s remarks were her personal comments and that travel advisories can be issued only by member states and not by the EU. And the WHO urged countries to not restrict international travel or close borders, saying those would do little to stem the outbreak. But Fukuda said people who are ill should put off trips abroad, and people who fall ill after a trip should see a doctor. iReport.com: Do you think we should be worried about swine flu Swine influenza, or flu, is a contagious respiratory disease that affects pigs. It is caused by a type-A influenza virus. Outbreaks in pigs occur year-round. The current strain is a new variation of an H1N1 virus, which is a mix of human and animal versions. 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, because people have no natural immunity.

The symptoms are similar to those of the common flu — fever, lethargy, lack of appetite, coughing, runny nose, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The virus spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes around another person, and people can become infected by touching something with the flu virus on it and then touching their mouths, noses or eyes. Learn more about swine flu and how to treat it » In 1968, a “Hong Kong” flu pandemic killed about 1 million people worldwide. In 1918, a “Spanish” flu pandemic killed as many as 100 million people.