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Published:April 28th, 2009 09:25 EST
WHO Elevates Alert Level On Swine Flu Epidemic

WHO Elevates Alert Level On Swine Flu Epidemic

By Christopher HIllenbrand

After meeting to address the threat the new swine flu strain is posing toward the globe, the World Health Organization elevated the alert level but declined to label the illness a global emergency. Health officials convened on the situation as the number of swine flu cases reported in Mexico and the United States has nearly doubled, with the death tolls in Mexico, suspected to be linked to the strain, rising.

The WHO hiked the emergency level up to Phase 4, signifying the virus` ability to transmit from person-to-person leading to potential epidemics in at least one country. The organization amended the alert level requirements following the avian flu scare that originated in Asia back in 2004. The organization`s decision to raise the alert level on Monday was the first time the level ever rose over Phase 3.

The criteria of Phase 4 or 5 alerts underscores that the sickness is becoming more contagious from host-to-host. At this stage, governments restrict imports, exports, and travel with the objective of lessening the disease`s transmission. Phase 6 means a fully formed pandemic, described as outbreaks in a minimum of two regions of the world.

Seeing that the disease has already spread to multiple countries, WHO Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukada said: "At this time, containment is not a feasible option."

Officials for WHO said that it might take 4-6 months for the first round of vaccines to be made readily available to the public to combat the strain.

U.S. authorities have urged Americans to refrain from traveling to Mexico as much as possible, and have increased border checks in adjoining states as well as deploying more personnel to monitor everyone coming into the country by air, land and sea. In conjunction with the WHO`s evaluation, the European Union health commissioner warned Europeans to halt travel plans to both Mexico and the flu-afflicted regions of the United States.

Experts say the virus` impact in the U.S will be especially far-reaching given the state of the economy, just as it began to rebound from the recession in which it has been mired for the last 16 months. The effects of an epidemic would cripple the tourist industry, food distribution, and transit of not only the United States but the world in general, carving a greater trough in the global economy than previously.

By Sunday evening, Mexico suspects that the number of deaths related to the swine flu is now up to 152, with the disease`s epicenter yielding as many as 2,000 victims.

The figure of the U.S.`s confirmed cases has now climbed from 40 to 50, as the medical tests taken by supposedly infected NYC students have come back, but none are fatal. Cases in the United States are widespread, with people now diagnosed in California, Texas, Kansas and Ohio.

A government officials` count compiled from around the world brought the total number of confirmed cases to 79 with one in Spain, two in Scotland, and six in Canada.

The World Health Organization claims the number is a little less than that figure at 73, since both Scottish cases are still pending test results and the U.S. and Mexican governments have placed their total a little higher.

Notwithstanding the confirmed cases of the virus, New Zealand has 13 suspected cases, and both France and Israel have one suspected case each.

Erring on the side of caution, European Union Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou include the United States as a country for Europeans to avoid traveling to in addition to Mexico.

Prior to the developments occurring over the weekend and into this week, Mexico put the numbers of confirmed cases in the hundreds, but as Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said, the epidemic was progressing at an even more deadly pace, as the strain swept past concentrated groups of people into the mainstream even as the government stepped up isolating and screening purported victims of the strain.

"We are in the most critical moment of the epidemic," Cordova said, addressing a news conference. "The number of cases will keep rising, so we have to reinforce preventative measures."

President Barack Obama claimed that the disease certainly arouses concern, but isn`t considered to be "a cause for alarm."

Thus far, the flu`s ramifications haven`t been as severe in the United States as in Mexico, according to Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And only one of the 40 confirmed victims needing hospitalization.

Besser said: "I wouldn`t be overly reassured by that," implying that the U.S. has yet to have been spared from the increasingly adaptive strain of the virus. "We are taking it seriously and acting aggressively. Until the outbreak has progressed, you really don`t know what it`s going to do."

11 million anti-virus vaccines are being released from a federal stockpile and are going to be distributed to the five states with confirmed cases and to the states neighboring Mexico, according to Besser. He also said only a quarter of the dosages were accessed from the stockpile.

Besser affirmed that the vaccines being prepared for circulation were not designed to combat this particular subtype of the influenza virus, but some of the anti-virus medications may work in someone already infected.

The CDC has already obtained what is referred to as seed stock from the deadly illness, which then can be used to develop mass quantities of a suitable vaccine.

Most cases confirmed worldwide are considerably less severe than the outbreak racing across Mexico. Symptoms of the moderately potent cases typically include fevers eclipsing 100 degrees, joint aches, coughing, severe headache, and occasionally, vomiting and diarrhea.

Janet Napolitano, head of the Homeland Security Department, said: "We want to make sure that we have equipment where it needs to be, people where they need to be and most important, information shared at all levels. We are proceeding as if we are preparatory to a full pandemic."

She also said that federally issued warnings against traveling to Mexico will be enforced until the swine flu is no longer active.

After Mexico City cancelled most public functions and events, the Mexican government then imposed the same measures on a countrywide level. All public schools will remain closed until May 6th, and they`re debating whether or not to disable all public institutions including public transit if the number of fatalities continues to grow.

On Monday, officials said that the annual Cinco de Mayo parade will be cancelled and the National Institute of Anthropology and History announced that all of the 116 museums operated by the group will be closed indefinitely.

Mexico Labor Secretary Javier Lozano Alarcon urged employers to report any workers displaying flu-like symptoms like cough, high fever, sore throat, vomiting and other warning signs.

Many in the global community found Mexico`s delayed reaction to the swine flu epidemic unacceptable. Even under such intense scrutiny to provide answers to the tough questions, Mexico still hasn`t pinpointed the exact location where the strain started or any commonalities shared amongst the victims.

Health Secretary Cordova said that the health department wasn`t properly manned to handle examining the homes of the deceased.

According to Cordova, 1,995 people have been treated for serious cases of pneumonia since the initial case of the strain broke on April 13th. The government isn`t sure of many of those patients suffered from swine flu. But as Cordova revealed, a 4-year-old boy was diagnosed with the illness before April 2nd in Veracruz state, where pig farmer had become a problem in one community.

Also on Monday, Mexico`s Agriculture Department said that its inspectors didn`t uncover any signs of swine flu among the livestock at the farm in Veracruz, nor in pigs anywhere else in the country.

During Cordova`s news conference, a 5.6 magnitude tremor rippled across southern Mexico when tensions were already skyrocketing because of the dire health dilemma.

Besser insisted that the commonplace deterrents used to stop normal seasonal cold and flu infection could be just as effective when coping with a predicament of high urgency. Practicing regular handwashing, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze and staying home from work or school were all useful pieces of advice he claimed might be more practical in the meantime until the appropriate drugs are accessible. He also said that health officials are not suggesting surgical masks will efficiently stave off infection and that evidence proving their necessity "is not that strong."

U.S. and European drug industries reported that stocks went up as investors caught wind of the governments` plans to produce greater amounts of medications used to fight the infection. As tourism and travel in general was slowed to a crawl, stocks of hotels, rental car companies and airlines plummeted due to the temporary collapse of their related industries.

Swine flu has reminded Asian governments of the SARS outbreak that struck the majority of the continent in 2003, and they quickly adopted the international travel limitations and isolation tactics used to suppress their own numbers of confirmed cases toward the affected countries.