By KENT KLEIN of the Voice of America
THE World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday said a new swine flu strain in Mexico and the United States is “a public health emergency of international concern.” The flu has killed as many as 68 people in Mexico and sickened more than 1,000. Health officials said it is too early to say whether it will become a worldwide outbreak.
WHO director-general Margaret Chan has warned countries around the world to watch closely for unusual outbreaks of flu-like illness and severe pneumonia.
“It is very important that all regions of the World Health Organization work with our countries to heighten surveillance so that we know exactly whether this new disease is causing infection in human beings in countries other than the US and Mexico,” she said.
Chan held an emergency meeting of experts Saturday to discuss the scare.
She said the WHO cannot say whether or not the disease will become a pandemic.
The Mexican government, meanwhile, has given its health department powers to isolate patients and to inspect homes, incoming travelers and baggage.
Officials in Mexico City have closed schools, museums and other public places.
The new strain of the flu was also confirmed in eight people in [the US states of] California and Texas. All eight later recovered.
Anne Schuchat of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the virus cannot be contained, because it is widespread, and officials expect to identify more cases.
She said: “Containment would be fantastic, but we think there are many, many tools in our toolbox to reduce the illness and the suffering that this virus is causing and reduce transmission, even if we are not in a circumstance where we can contain it.”
WHO chief Margaret Chan said the situation is evolving quickly, and new diseases are often poorly understood.
She said research is being done on an urgent basis.
“In the next few days we need to work very closely with the Mexican authorities to find out the epidemiology, the data available to them and how these data is linked to the traces. And find out exactly, of the cases that they have reported, how many of those are indeed due to infection caused by the new H1N1,” she said.
WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said with the outbreak just beginning, there are many things researchers still do not know.
“We are not sure exactly of the transmission routes, where the initial infection came from, how efficient it is in transmitting. There are interesting questions also in terms of infection – why no one has died in the United States so far whereas there have been confirmed deaths in Mexico,” he said.
The new virus is a mix of human, pig and bird strains.
US officials said the White House is monitoring the situation, and press secretary Robert Gibbs says President Barack Obama’s health is not in danger, more than a week after he was in Mexico to meet with government officials.