Wednesday, April 29, 2009
New cases of the swine flu virus have been reported around the world in recent days, prompting fear of a global influenza pandemic. As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the pandemic alert level to 5. The United Nations has warned that the disease can not be contained. At least 91 confirmed cases of the flu have been reported worldwide.
In a special report, Wikinews takes a look at the reaction to the outbreak, and how different countries around the world have been affected by it.
The disease, which is believed to have originated in Mexico, has now spread across the globe, with confirmed cases having been reported in Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Israel. The United States has also reported its first death from the disease in a toddler. South Korea and France both had probable cases.
The WHO said on Tuesday that while it was not yet certain that the outbreak would turn into pandemic, countries should prepare for the worst. “Countries should take the opportunity to prepare for a pandemic,” said the acting assistant director-general for the WHO, Keiji Fukuda.
“Based on assessment of all available information, and following several expert consultations, I have decided to raise the current level of influenza pandemic alert from phase 4 to phase 5,” said Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the WHO, in a statement on Wednesday. “…All countries should immediately activate their pandemic preparedness plans. Countries should remain on high alert for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia.” After the announcement was made, Wikinews learned that the WHO website had crashed for several minutes, presumably due to high traffic volume.
There is no vaccine for swine flu. In 1976 during an outbreak of the virus, at least 500 people became seriously ill, and of them, 25 had died when inoculated with an attempt at a vaccination. The 500 that became ill developed a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) which caused paralysis “and is characterized by various degrees of weakness, sensory abnormalities and autonomic dysfunction.” Those who developed the disorder did so because of an immunopathological reaction to the drug. Nearly 40 million US residents, including then US president Gerald Ford, were inoculated.
Screening measures at Canadian airports have been raised on Tuesday to screen passengers returning from Mexico for symptoms of swine flu. The measures come amid reports that thirteen people have now been infected in the country, in four different provinces.
The Public Health Agency has recommended Canadians who have booked flights to Mexico to delay them if possible. Those who choose to fly anyway will be asked questions about their health after they return, such as whether they have had symptoms of the flu, like diarrhea, coughing, or a sore throat. If anyone answers in the affirmative, they may be further assessed and perhaps transferred to a quarantine officer, who will suggest that they seek medical help, or isolate themselves at home.
“These measures will help to prevent further spread and protect the health of Canadians and we thank you for your patience and co-operation with this process,” said the chief public health officer, David Butler-Jones.
Several Canadian airlines have also limited or cancelled flights to Mexico. Air Transat and its partner tour companies, Nolitours and Transat Holidays, have cancelled all flights bound to Mexico until June 1. West Jet has also stated that it will suspend all vacation planning and air flights for Cancun, Mazatlan, Cabo San Lucas, and other destinations in Mexico.
Egypt, which has not yet reported any cases of the flu, has recently begun a campaign to slaughter all 300,000 pigs in the country, despite assurances by health officials that the disease is not transmitted from animals to humans. “It has been decided to immediately start slaughtering all the pigs in Egypt using the full capacity of the country’s slaughterhouses,” Egypt’s health minister, Hatem el-Gabaly, told reporters.
Farmers have been protesting the measure. At one pig farming area in the country, crowds of farmers blockaded the roads to prevent health officials from entering to slaughter their pigs. Some of the farmers hurled stones at officials’ vehicles, and the latter was forced to retreat without killing any of the animals.
In Mexico, the epicentre of the outbreak, officials have announced up to 159 suspected deaths from the virus, out of a total of 2,498 suspected cases. The Mexican cabinet has announced that all flights departing from Mexico City will be suspended, while Argentina and Cuba have both cancelled all flights to the country. The European Union and the US have both issued warnings against traveling to Mexico.
The Royal Caribbean cruise line has suspended all stops in Mexico indefinitely, while Norwegian Cruise Line announced that its vessels will not make stops at Mexican ports until September of this year.
The government has ordered all restaurants in the country’s capital to serve only carry-out food, and closed archaeological sites with the intent of limiting large groupings of people. Churches, gyms, pool halls, and other institutions in Mexico City have been asked to close. School classes across the country have been suspended until May 6.
The Mexican government has estimated that the epidemic is costing companies in the capital at least US$57 million per day, and that tourism revenue has dropped by 36%. The finance ministry has set up a special fund of $450 million to fight the disease.
Thirteen confirmed cases have been known in New Zealand. All of them have been prescribed the antiviral drug Tamiflu.
New Zealand airports have now started to screen at least ten thousand people who arrive in the country from flights from Northern America. Those who display symptoms of the flu are taken aside by health authorities and placed into a quarantine.
“The number of suspected cases is likely in increase,” said Fran McGrath, the Deputy Director of Public Health. “While the numbers in any category will fluctuate, this is a pattern to be expected from an influenza outbreak. It is important to note that the 13 people we are treating as confirmed cases have all had mild flu symptoms, have received treatment and are all on the mend of have recovered.”
Spain’s health minister Trinidad Jinenez announced on Wednesday that a total of 53 persons in the country are under observation for the influenza. The number of confirmed cases in the country has been risen from four to ten, including one person who did not obtain the illness by traveling to Mexico.
Until now, Jimenez said that all of Spain’s confirmed cases involved persons who had recently visited Mexico, where the outbreak is believed to have began.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that five people who recently visited Mexico are now ill with the swine flu in the United Kingdom. “All of them have traveled recently from Mexico,” he said. “All of them have mild symptoms. All of them are receiving and responding well to treatment.”
The school of one the infected people, a twelve-year-old girl from Torbay, has been shut down and its 230 pupils given the drug Tamiflu, Brown said.
The Prime Minister said that the country is preparing for a possible pandemic. It has increased its stocks of antiviral drugs, enough for fifty million people, and ordered additional face masks for health workers. The government has encouraged all British residents to avoid travel to Mexico.
A 23-month-old boy from Mexico died at a Houston, Texas hospital on Wednesday, the first casualty from swine flu in the United States. The child had arrived in Brownsville, Texas, near the border with Mexico, with unspecified “underlying health issues” on April 4. Several days later, he presented symptoms of swine flu, and was hospitalized on April 13. The next day, the boy was transferred to a Houston hospital, where he remained until dying on Monday night of pneumonia brought on by the virus.
In response to the epidemic, Texas governor Rick Perry has given a disaster declaration. Schools have closed down statewide. Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has also declared a state of emergency in his state.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated the number of incidents of swine flu in the country to 64 on Tuesday.
President Barack Obama has asked Congress for a fund of $1.5 billion to fight the outbreak, saying that it is needed for “maximum flexibility to allow us to address this emerging situation.”
US health authorities have warned that more cases and fatalities from the flu are probable. “We expect to see more cases, more hospitalizations, and, unfortunately, we are likely to see more deaths from the outbreak,” said Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary.