By Jodi Mullen
Governments and health officials around the world are battling to contain the spread of a new strain of swine flu, amidst fears that the virus could become a global pandemic. More than 1,600 cases of the illness have been reported in Mexico, where the first outbreaks of the virus occurred, and there have also been confirmed cases in the United States and Canada. Patients in New Zealand, Spain, France, Israel and the UK are also being monitored with suspected cases of the virus.
In Mexico, 103 people have died from the illness, though only twenty have been confirmed by laboratories as having been caused by swine flu. The Mexican government has acted swiftly to contain the virus and in Mexico City, the centre of the initial outbreak, most shops, schools, restaurants and public buildings have been closed. The public have been advised to abstain from unnecessary physical contact, including shaking hands and kissing, and many people are refusing to leave their homes without masks and are consuming stored food and water rather than using public supplies.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is advising all affected countries and is working to prevent the further spread of the virus across international borders. While there are no reported deaths outside of Mexico at the moment, the WHO remains vigilant and has asked governments to closely monitor all arrivals from regions with confirmed cases of swine flu. China and Russia have placed quarantine restrictions on passengers arriving from affected countries while the US is set to begin testing for the virus at immigration control in international airports.
While there is no vaccine for the new strain of swine flu, the WHO is working closely with governments to ensure that sufficient quantities of anti-viral drugs reach affected areas. Dr Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general, said that preparations to prevent a global outbreak of avian influenza between 2004 and 2007 have helped impede the spread of the virus. “I believe that the world is much, much better prepared than we have ever been for dealing with this kind of situation,” he said.
Two Scots are undergoing tests for swine flu in hospital in Airdrie in the first suspected case of the virus in the UK. The couple fell ill shortly after returning to Scotland from a holiday in Mexico and have since been hospitalised and quarantined. Friends and family members who had contact with the couple after their return are being monitored by health officials and plans are in place to isolate them should any develop symptoms of swine flu. The results of the tests are expected later today.
At present, the WHO is holding its pandemic crisis alert system at Level 3, though the organisation has debated raising the threat level to 4. If signs appear that the virus can pass easily from person to person, the alert level will likely rise. The WHO has warned that Level 5 indicates an imminent pandemic, when governments should resort to emergency measures to mitigate the spread of the disease, while Level 6 represents a full-blown global pandemic.