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Arizona Department of Health Services/AP
Robert Nickla prepares clinical samples for influenza testing at the Arizona State
Laboratory in Phoenix.

Global Concerns Rise as WHO Raises Swine Flu Alert Level

April 29, 2009 05:00 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
WHO has raised the swine flu pandemic alert level to 5, indicating an end to earlier hopes that the swine flu outbreak would be a "mild" pandemic.

WHO Raises Alert Level; One Death and More Confirmed Cases in U.S.

In a statement on Tuesday, Keiji Fukuda, World Health Organization acting assistant director-general and an American influenza expert, said that due to the nature of the flu virus, it is quite difficult to predict how the new strain of swine flu will manifest. However, Fukuda told reporters that, "It is entirely possible ... that we may see a very mild pandemic."

On Wednesday, that possibility appeared to become less likely; WHO director-general Margaret Chan announced that the agency is raising its swine flu pandemic alert level to 5; according to CNN, this heightened alertness means that "all countries should 'immediately' activate pandemic preparedness plans."

All over the world, countries are exploring strategies for preventing the spread of the disease, including closing schools, canceling flights to and from Mexico, and slaughtering all the pigs in Egypt. In Mexico, most public facilities are closed and people are wearing masks on the street. Health officials say that humans cannot be infected by eating pork products. Doctors do not yet know why human-to-human transmission of the disease is happening so rapidly. There is currently no vaccine for the virus, and U.S. officials estimate that it will be a few months before they can successfully develop and begin testing one.

The first U.S. death from swine flu has occurred in Texas; the boy who died was a Mexican toddler who had come to America for treatment. Federal officials are predicting more deaths from the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 11 a.m. Wednesday, 91 people were infected in the U.S. The largest number of cases is in New York; additional cases have been reported in several other states, including California, Texas, Kansas, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.

Background: Can past epidemics shed light on the current crisis?

Swine flu is a respiratory disease of pigs caused by type A influenza viruses. Human infections are unusual, but do happen. Most commonly, human cases of swine flu happen in people who are around pigs. However, it is possible for swine flu viruses to spread from human to human, and have done so in the current outbreak. According to the CDC, swine flu symptoms include "fever, lethargy, lack of appetite and coughing. Some people with swine flu also have reported runny nose, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea." In Mexico, where this current pandemic appears to have originated, other reported symptoms include eye pain, shortness of breath and extreme fatigue, leading to severe respiratory distress.

Swine flu first became well-known to Americans in 1976 after an outbreak among 500 soldiers, one of whom died, at Fort Dix, N.J. Later that year, the federal government implemented a vaccination program against swine flu. The vaccine caused serious complications in hundreds of people, and was halted after a few months.

In a twist that's unfortunately reminiscent of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, most cases in Mexico have been reported in healthy adults. The elderly and the very young, which usually are the hardest hit by the flu, have not been significantly affected.

Reference: Swine flu updates

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides general information about swine flu and how it spreads, and offers a daily update of the current outbreak of swine flu in the U.S. The CDC also has a safe travel page to help people determine the vaccinations they will need when they go to various places, and assess the disease risk in the country they are visiting.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also provides information about swine flu, and links to the most recent updates on the current pandemic.

The Daily Telegraph explains what each level of the WHO pandemic alert scale means. The scale assesses the degree to which a disease has spread, and provides suggested responses to the affected countries at each level.

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