WHO: Global swine flu outbreak hits danger level

April 28, 2009

The World Health Organization (WHO) raised by a notch to four yesterday its alert level on the swine flu outbreak that according to Health Secretary Francisco Duque means the disease had reached a stage which would be “a cause for alarm” worldwide.

The WHO said the virus is now too “widespread to make containment a feasible” strategy.

WHO assistant general secretary Keiji Fukuda warned the virus would be impossible to contain.

“I think that in this age of global travel where people

move around in airplanes so quickly, there is no region to which this virus could not spread,” Fukuda said.

A WHO alert level four means there is sustained human-to-human transmission of the virus causing outbreaks in at least one country. Under the alert level, each country was advised to monitor and screen more strictly for inbound people with the Bureau of Quarantine and three hospitals ordered to be on standby in cases of the flu hitting the country.

An alert level 4 to 5 signals that the virus is becoming increasingly adept at spreading among humans. Phase 6 is for a full-blown pandemic, characterized by outbreaks in at least two regions of the world, based on the WHO.

The death toll from the flu outbreak reached above 150 in Mexico and at least 16 countries reporting confirmed or suspected infections.

Mexico, epicenter of the outbreak, said 152 people were now believed to have died from swine flu with more than 1,600 people suspected to be carrying the virus. Twenty of the deaths have been confirmed by laboratory tests.

The number of confirmed cases in the United States more than doubled to 44 and Britain and Spain both said they had registered patients sick with swine flu, the first cases in Europe.

Canada has six cases and Israel and New Zealand confirmed their first swine flu casualties.

Suspected victims were being kept under surveillance from Australia (70 cases) to Sweden and Switzerland which had five each.

While countries tightened borders, the WHO said research since the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 in Asia had shown that border controls were of little use halting the spread of such a virus.

“Border controls do not work. Screening doesn’t work,” WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said in Geneva.

“If a person has been exposed or infected… the person might not be symptomatic at the airport,” he said.

Asia-Pacific transport ministers also expressed concern on the possible impact of the swine flu outbreak to global travel and safety and agreed to undertake “urgent steps” to prevent the spread of the disease.

Elena Bautista, Philippine presiding chairman of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) transportation working group, said officials and representatives of the 21 APEC economies, who are gathered in Manila for a two-day meeting, called for greater cooperation to ensure the traveling public’s health safety amid the spreading flu.

“The pandemic influenza was included in the discussions and ministers noted that the issue should be given immediate attention,” Bautista told a press briefing.

Four of APEC members—the United States, Mexico, New Zealand and Canada—are the countries hardest hit by the virus.

At least 149 people died in Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak, while about 2,000 people were said to be infected. There were also reported incidents of contamination in several US states, in Canada, New Zealand, Spain and South Korea.

“The ministers said we have to give priority to this issue and instructed the senior officials to coordinate with our counterparts in the health ministries to contain the global spread of the pandemic influenza,” Bautista said.

Among the concerns raised by the ministers are the pandemic’s impact on inter-state travel, how to contain the virus, and on how to provide additional parameters such as installation of additional equipment to ensure safety of travellers.

Ministers also agreed to work closely with their countries’ respective health officials and to share information and best practices among APEC members.

A joint statement, outlining the highlights of the conference, will be issued on Wednesday.

On Monday, the Philippine government urged Filipinos to desist from undertaking unnecessary travel to Mexico and other countries where there is an outbreak of swine flu virus.

All Filipinos travelling to Mexico, the country hardest hit by epidemic, are also advised “to avoid large crowds, avoid shaking hands, kissing people as a greeting, and avoid using the subway.”

Bautista said the Philippine Department of Transporation has yet to determine if it would need to procure additional equipment that has the ability to detect flu-stricken inbound passengers.

“There is an acknowledgment that we may need additional equipment, but we don’t know what type of equipment we need. Right now, the date we have is very very raw. Once information from the Department of Health is available we will decide right away. The DOH is the lead agency on this,” Bautista said.

In the meantime, she said local transport officials manning air, land and sea ports were instructed by the Transportation Department to strengthen its monitoring system and to always be on guard against possible carriers of the disease.

Malacañang, meanwhile, said it had mobilized the entire national disaster coordinating agencies to devise a response plan on the swine flu problem.

Duque said government authorities are under instructions from President Arroyo to devise measures like the use of state of the art thermal gadgets for monitoring incoming travelers alighting from aircraft from Mexico, the United States and now including European areas.

“ We need to step up our surveillance in observation of the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation,” he said noting the epidemic on misinformation will likely cause more tension and confusion than the lethal swine flu virus itself.

Duque said that so far not one swine flu incidence occurred in country. The frontline workers and health workers on swine flu virus are alerted on surveillance.

Duque said the government have ample medicine in case the virus hits the country.

“We have 600,000 capsules for 60,000 cases and other medicines to support treatment on flu, if and this occurs,” he said.

Transportation and Communications Secretary Leandro Mendoza also ordered all officials of the country’s port of entires to strictly implement the inspections of passengers through the thermal scanners.

Mendoza said that this is aimed to prevent entry of the H1N1 Human Virus, or more commonly known as the Swine Flu Virus, in the country.

“All persons regardless of designations must pass through the thermal scanners to ensure that no person suspected of being carriers of the Swine Flu Virus would enter Philippine responsibility,” he said.

Mendoza also ordered all air and sea ports to purchase additional equipment if necessary, to ensure that all people would pass through the scanners.

“The DoTC is also in coordination with the DoH on the other measures to be implemented in our transport facilities,” Mendoza said. Jason Faustino




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