Mexican Swine Flu Spreads To Europe

Governments around the world rushed to reduce the impact of a possible flu pandemic on Monday, as a virus that has killed 103 people in Mexico and spread to the United States and Canada also reached Europe.

While the swine flu virus has so far killed no one outside Mexico, the fact that it has proved able to spread quickly between humans has raised fears that the world may be facing the flu pandemic that scientists say is long overdue.

Shares and oil prices fell in Asia and Europe, as investors feared a further shock to an already fragile global economy, if trade flows are curbed and manufacturing is hit.

The US government has declared a public health emergency and an official said it will also urge Americans to avoid all "non-essential" travel to Mexico, which relies heavily on tourism.

Spain became the first country in Europe to confirm a case of swine flu when a man who returned from a trip to Mexico last week was found to have the virus.

But his condition, like that of 20 cases identified in the United States and six in Canada, was not serious. A New Zealand teacher and around a dozen students who recently returned from Mexico were also being treated as likely mild swine flu cases.

President Barack Obama said US officials were closely monitoring cases of swine flu, but he also tried to ease fears.

"This is obviously a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert. But it is not a cause for alarm," Obama told a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cases of the flu, which has components of classic avian, human and swine flu viruses but has not actually been seen in pigs, were also suspected in Britain, France, Italy and Israel.

Many countries have stepped up surveillance at airports and ports, using thermal cameras and sensors to identify people with fever, and the World Health Organization has opened its 24-hour "war room" command centre.

The European Union's health chief urged citizens to avoid non-essential travel to areas affected by swine flu, and the European Commission called an urgent meeting of health ministers.


Although most cases outside Mexico were relatively mild, an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said she feared there might be US fatalities.

The WHO has declared the flu a "public health emergency of international concern" that could become a pandemic, or global outbreak of a serious disease.

Its emergency committee was due to decide on Monday whether to raise its pandemic alert level, currently at 3 on a scale of 1 to 6.

"If we go to phase 4 because of the swine flu virus, it basically means that we believe that a potential pandemic virus has potentially shown it can transmit from person to person and cause large outbreaks," WHO Acting Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda said on Sunday.

In the financial markets, travel and leisure stocks such as Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways and British Airways fell sharply, whereas makers of drugs and vaccines were higher.

An outbreak of the SARS respiratory virus in 2003 was largely limited to Southeast Asia and cost the region's economy around 0.6 percent of GDP.

The World Bank estimated last year that a global flu pandemic could cost USD$3 trillion and cut world GDP by 5 percent.

Oil prices fell more than 4 percent to below USD$50 a barrel on Monday, pressured partly by expectations the world economy could suffer if there is a pandemic.


In Mexico, the centre of the swine flu outbreak, life has slowed dramatically in cities as schools have been closed and public events called off to slow the spread of the virus.

Many in Mexico City spent the weekend at home or wore blue surgical face masks handed out by truckloads of soldiers to venture out onto strangely hushed streets. The city government considered halting public transport.

Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said on Sunday that the flu had killed 103 people in Mexico, and about 400 people had been admitted to hospital. But he noted that a majority of infected patients had recovered.

Health authorities across Asia tried to give reassurance, saying they had enough stockpiles of anti-flu drugs to handle an outbreak.

Guan Yi, a virology professor at the University of Hong Kong who helped to fight SARS and bird flu, said a pandemic looked inevitable. "I think the spread of this virus in humans cannot possibly be contained within a short time... We are counting down to a pandemic."

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