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Swine flu could become pandemic, health officials say

April 27, 2009
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A growing number of swine flu cases in Mexico and the U.S. has international health officials concerned that the aggressive virus could infect people worldwide, according to MarketWatch. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak of the previously unknown virus "a public health emergency of international concern." In a statement posted on its Web site, the agency advised health workers in all countries to monitor patients closely for signs of flu-like illness and severe pneumonia. A deadly new flu strain has infected thousands in Mexico. In a bid to halt the virus from spreading the government has closed schools, museums and other public buildings. The Geneva-based agency''s recommendation came after a committee of international experts gathered in an emergency session to consider raising the alert level for the outbreak to 6 -- a pandemic -- which could have led to travel advisories and additional restrictions to combat the disease. The WHO''s alert for the virus remains at phase 3, meaning a flu with "no or very limited human-to-human transmission." The committee said it needs more information before changing the threat level. But Dr. Margaret Chan, the agency''s director-general, told reporters that the outbreak has "pandemic potential." About the same time the WHO committee issued its statement, two new U.S. cases of the flu were confirmed in Kansas. New York health officials, meanwhile, had evidence of eight probable cases, CNN reported. Dr. Anne Schuchat, the interim deputy director for science and public health program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said the CDC is aiming its efforts at slowing the spread of the disease, which has killed at least 68 people in Mexico in the past month. More than 1,000 others in the Mexico City area have developed flu-like symptoms, according to media reports. In addition to the latest cases, eight people in the U.S. -- six in California and two in Texas -- were confirmed to have come down with a similar strain of the flu found in Mexico, according to the CDC. All eight have recovered, the CDC said, with only one patient needing hospitalization. Given that the new virus has appeared in diverse populations and in many communities, containing it is no longer feasible, Schuchat said. World health authorities are also making sure that flu vaccines can be distributed to countries that need them. Both the WHO and the CDC have been in contact with Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche Holding Ltd. a company spokeswoman said. Roche''s Tamiflu antiviral flu medicine seems effective against the virus, which is a combination of human, pig and bird flu strains. The WHO has also contacted British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline, which manufactures Relenza, another antiviral treatment. The Roche spokeswoman said 5 million units of Tamiflu -- 2 million of which are already with the WHO -- have been donated and are stockpiled for emergency use. She added that if requested the company would be able to speed production of the drug.

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