Thursday, April 30, 2009

Race to contain outbreak


WHO to consider tomorrow whether to raise threat level

WASHINGTON — The world's governments raced to avoid both a pandemic and global hysteria yesterday as more possible swine flu cases surfaced from Canada to New Zealand and the United States declared a public health emergency.

Mexico, the outbreak's epicentre with up to 86 suspected deaths, closed churches, markets and restaurants. Few people ventured onto the streets, and some wore face masks. Canada became the third country to confirm cases, in six people, including some students who — like some New York City spring-breakers — got mildly ill in Mexico.

In Mexico, soldiers handed out six million surgical-style masks to deal with a deadly flu strain that officials say may have sickened 1,400 people since April 13.

Countries across Asia promised to quarantine feverish travellers returning from flu-affected areas.

The US declared the health emergency so it could ship roughly 12 million doses of flu-fighting medication from a federal stockpile to states in case they eventually need them — although with 20 confirmed cases of people recovering easily, they do not appear to for now.

Make no mistake: There is not a global pandemic — at least not yet. It is not clear how many people truly have this particular strain, or why all countries but Mexico are seeing a mild form of the disease. Nor is it clear if the new virus spreads easily, one milestone that distinguishes a bad flu from a global crisis. But waiting to take protective steps until after a pandemic is declared would be too late.

"We do think this will continue to spread but we are taking aggressive actions to minimise the impact on people's health," said Dr Richard Besser, acting chief of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

President Barack Obama's administration sought to look both calm and in command, striking a balance between informing Americans without panicking them. Mr Obama himself was playing golf while US officials used a White House news conference to compare the emergency declaration with preparing for an approaching hurricane.

"Really that's what we're doing right now. We're preparing in an environment where we really don't know ultimately what the size or seriousness of this outbreak is going to be," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters.

The World Health Organisation and the US were following precautions developed over the past five years to prepare for the next super-flu.

The WHO, which on Saturday asked all countries to step up detection of this strain of A/H1N1 swine flu, will consider tomorrow whether to raise the pandemic threat level, in turn triggering additional actions. AP

From TODAY – Monday, 27-April-2009

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