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Swine Flu Nears Pandemic as Schools Shut, Pigs Killed (Update1) |
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By Tom Randall
April 30 (Bloomberg) -- Fort Worth, Texas, closed 144 public schools with 80,000 students after one child came down with swine flu. Citigroup Inc. disinfected a New York office building when a worker became ill, and as many as 400,000 pigs are being slaughtered in Egypt.
Companies, school districts and nations are reacting swiftly to a new strain of flu that has been confirmed in only 257 people worldwide yet threatens millions, according to the World Health Organization. Confirmed cases are now reported in 11 countries, and officials in New York, Mexico and Australia have said hundreds more infections are suspected.
The WHO yesterday raised its six-tier alert to 5 and said the world’s first influenza pandemic since 1968 may soon be declared. The United Nations agency urged countries to make final preparations against a disease that may sweep across the globe, preying on a world population that has no natural immunity to the new virus.
“If we are very careful about noting what the recommendations are, we won’t go over the top in our response,” said William Schaffner, an influenza expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, in a telephone interview today. “There’s going to be variations among different countries and social circumstances -- some of that is inevitable -- but what you’d like to do is get everyone on the same page.”
Margaret Chan, WHO’s director-general, said yesterday that travel shouldn’t be restricted because it won’t slow the spread of the flu. Countries should review response plans and be ready to put them into action, she said during a news conference at the organization’s Geneva offices.
“It is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic,” Chan said. “The biggest question right now is this: How severe will the pandemic be? All countries should immediately now activate their pandemic plans.”
A pandemic is an unexpected outbreak of a new contagious disease that spreads from person to person across multiple borders.
Batches of seed virus are being developed for potential vaccine production, according to WHO, in Geneva. Paris-based Sanofi-Aventis SA, Baxter International Inc. and GlaxoSmithKline Plc are talking with world health authorities about how to produce a vaccine.
“We are in constant discussions with the government about how and if we should go ahead,” said Donna Cary, a spokeswoman for Sanofi’s Sanofi-Pasteur unit in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania. London-based Glaxo and Novartis AG of Basel, Switzerland, also are talking with regulators, spokesmen for the companies said.
Production of seasonal flu shots will be completed before swine flu vaccine production begins, if that decision is made, Richard Besser, acting head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said today.
The CDC may soon stop reporting numbers of cases, because as the disease spreads, “it can get murky,” Besser said. Swine flu has been confirmed in 11 U.S. states. The White House said 20 states have probable or confirmed cases.
An employee at the World Bank, the Washington-based lender that helps nations reduce poverty, has been preliminarily diagnosed with swine flu after traveling to Mexico for his job, according to an e-mail to employees from the bank. About 80 employees have been asked to work from home after coming in contact with the worker in the Washington office.
In Mexico, where the toll is highest, 159 people may have died from the malady, according to government officials, with 97 cases and at least seven deaths confirmed by WHO-approved laboratory tests.
A “worrisome sign from Mexico was the relatively young healthy adults” succumbing to the virus, Anne Schuchat, interim deputy director of the CDC science and public health program, said today in Congress. She said the average age of those in the U.S. confirmed to have the flu is 22.
In the U.S., at least 109 cases, including one death, have been confirmed, and New York City officials said they suspect hundreds are infected. The U.S. Department of Education counted 298 closed schools today, according to the Washington Post.
The White House today said a presidential aide who traveled ahead of Obama to Mexico City earlier this month was sick with flulike symptoms. The man’s wife, son and nephew also developed symptoms and all are being tested for swine flu, said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
WHO’s statistics, which lag behind those reported by national and local agencies, showed confirmed cases in the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Israel, Spain, the U.K. and New Zealand.
Disease trackers are trying to determine whether the new H1N1 influenza strain is spreading efficiently in Spain, said Dick Thompson, a spokesman for WHO in Geneva. The agency needs evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission outside North America to declare the outbreak a pandemic.
Among the 13 cases in Spain, at least one hadn’t traveled to Mexico, Thompson said today. One case “confirmed to us that there’s some community transmission beginning,” he said. “The virus is becoming established in another area. It’s this new single case that is especially worrying.”
The last pandemic, 41 years ago, killed 1 million people and was mild compared with the global outbreak of 1918, which may have killed as many as 50 million.
Parents Should Plan
President Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.5 billion to battle an outbreak, and said parents should plan for school closings. Texas Governor Rick Perry declared a disaster, a “preemptive” measure to facilitate emergency preparations and seek federal reimbursement. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency.
Swine flu infections in people aren’t related to exposure to pigs, and properly prepared pork is safe to eat, said Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director-general for health security and environment. The disease is spreading like the seasonal flu and is “unlikely” to stop, Fukuda said.
The genetic strains around the world that have been tested are “remarkably consistent and remarkably similar to each other,” Fukuda said. The three main seasonal flu strains -- H3N2, H1N1 and type-B -- cause 250,000 to 500,000 deaths a year globally, according to WHO. The new flu results in symptoms similar to those of seasonal influenza, including fever and coughing, nausea and vomiting, according to the CDC. It appears to be causing more diarrhea than seasonal flu, WHO said.
The U.S. can expect more hospitalizations and deaths, Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, said. Hand-washing and hygiene are among the most effective ways to control the outbreak, she said.
A Marine is recovering after being tested for the illness, and another 37 Marines are being “watched and tested” at a base with 15,000 personnel in 29 Palms, California, Marine Corps Commandant General James Conway said at the Pentagon yesterday.
Citigroup Inc., the third-biggest U.S. bank by assets, said an employee at one of its offices in the New York City borough of Queens has been diagnosed with swine flu and is expected to make a full recovery. The Long Island City building in Queens is being “professionally disinfected,” Citigroup said in a statement yesterday.
WHO raised the level on its current pandemic alert system, adopted in 2005, twice this week. It had been at 3 since 2007, when it was elevated for an outbreak of avian flu.
A stage 5 warning is “a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent” with little time left for preparation, according to the WHO Web site. It’s based on the determination that the disease is established in communities in two countries in the same WHO region.
To contact the reporters on this story: Naomi Kresge in Geneva at firstname.lastname@example.org; Tom Randall in New York at email@example.com.