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Swine Flu Continues to Spread

April 28, 2009

The Washington Post covers the growing swine flu story, reporting that the virus has now been found in New Zealand and Israel, in addition to “[c]ases…confirmed in Scotland as well. An additional 20 cases were being investigated in Spain, along with 17 potential cases in Britain, and at least one each in France, Sweden, Germany and Switzerland.” The inevitable negative economic impact has begun to spread as well, with “oil prices, the Mexican peso and airline stocks all plung[ing]”. NPR reports that the Chinese government is concerned that its tourist economy will be hurt as well.

The article thoroughly discusses the World Health Organization’s response to the spreading virus:

The World Health Organization, which yesterday raised its pandemic threat level from 3 to 4, two levels below a full-scale pandemic, will not meet today to consider another increase, a spokesman said at a news conference.

While the agency said people should think carefully before traveling to or from areas known to be affected by the flu virus, spokesman Gregory Hartl said it considers formal travel restrictions and border closures ineffective because people who would be screened could be infected but not yet showing symptoms.

“Border controls don’t work. Screening doesn’t work,” Hartl said, according to Reuters news service, describing the economically-damaging travel bans as basically pointless in public health terms.

He said “we are still at phase 4” in terms of threat level because officials do not yet “have incontrovertible evidence” that the virus spreads easily from human to human. Yesterday was the first time the international body had elevated its official estimation of the threat of an influenza pandemic up from level 3, using a system that was revised in the wake of the 2003 SARS outbreak.

“A pandemic is not considered inevitable at this time,” said Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director general for health security and environment. “The situation is fluid, and the situation continues to evolve.”

What is clear, officials say, is that the virus is causing sustained community-wide outbreaks, with a rise in the suspected death toll in Mexico to 149 as of yesterday, along with the confirmation of the first case in Europe and a doubling of the number of confirmed cases in the United States. In the first signs that the outbreak could be taking a toll on the staggering global economy, oil prices, the Mexican peso and airline stocks all plunged.

The level 4 alert could in some circumstances prompt health authorities to launch massive efforts to contain an outbreak, but Fukuda said the virus had spread too widely to make that realistic.

“This virus has already spread quite far,” Fukuda said.

Instead, the move was designed to prompt countries to intensify efforts to minimize the spread of the virus by identifying new cases and clusters quickly and taking other measures.

“Given the current situation, the current focus of efforts should be on mitigation efforts,” he said.

Fukuda urged people who are sick not to travel and said travelers who become ill should seek medical attention.

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