Swine flu fears prompt quarantine plans, pork bans
By Frank Jordans, Associated Press Writer
GENEVA – Countries planned quarantines, tightened rules on pork imports and tested airline passengers for fevers as global health officials tried Sunday to come up with uniform ways to battle a deadly strain of swine flu. Nations from New Zealand to France reported new suspected cases and some warned citizens against travel to North America.
World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan held teleconferences with staff and flu experts around the world but stopped short of recommending specific measures to halt the disease beyond urging governments to step up their surveillance of suspicious outbreaks.
Governments including China, Russia and Taiwan began planning to put anyone with symptoms of the deadly virus under quarantine.
Others were increasing their screening of pigs and pork imports from the Americas or banning them outright despite health officials' reassurances that it was safe to eat thoroughly cooked pork.
Some nations issued travel warnings for Mexico and the United States.
Chan called the outbreak a public health emergency of "pandemic potential" because the virus can pass from human to human.
Her agency was considering whether to issue nonbinding recommendations on travel and trade restrictions, and even border closures. It is up to governments to decide whether to follow the advice.
"Countries are encouraged to do anything that they feel would be a precautionary measure," WHO spokeswoman Aphaluck Bhatiasevi said. "All countries need to enhance their monitoring."
New Zealand said that 10 students who took a school trip to Mexico "likely" had swine flu. Israel said a man who had recently visited Mexico had been hospitalized while authorities try to determine whether he had the disease. French Health Ministry officials said four possible cases of swine flu are currently under investigation, including a family of three in the northern Nord region and a woman in the Paris region. The four recently returned from Mexico. Tests on two separate cases of suspected swine flu proved negative, they said.
Spain's Health Ministry said three people who just returned from Mexico were under observation in hospitals in the northern Basque region, in southeastern Albacete and the Mediterranean port city of Valencia.
Mexico closed schools, museums, libraries and theaters in a bid to contain the outbreak after hundreds were sickened there. In the U.S., there have been at least 11 confirmed cases of swine flu in California, Texas and Kansas. Patients have ranged in age from 9 to over 50. At least two were hospitalized. All recovered or are recovering.
New York health officials said more than 100 students at the St. Francis Preparatory School, in Queens, recently began suffering a fever, sore throat and aches and pains. Some of their relatives also have been ill.
Some St. Francis students had recently traveled to Mexico, The New York Times and New York Post reported Sunday.
Preliminary tests of samples taken from sick students' noses and throats confirmed that at least eight had a non-human strain of influenza type A, indicating probable cases of swine flu, city health officials said. The exact subtypes were still unknown, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was conducting further tests.
Hong Kong and Taiwan said visitors who came back from flu-affected areas with fevers would be quarantined. China said anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms within two weeks of arrival an affected area had to report to authorities. A Russian health agency said any passenger from North America running a fever would be quarantined until cause of the fever is determined.
Tokyo's Narita airport installed a device to test the temperatures of passengers arriving from Mexico.
Indonesia increased surveillance at all entry points for travelers with flu-like symptoms — using devices at airports that were put in place years ago to monitor for severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and bird flu. It said it was ready to quarantine suspected victims if necessary.
Hong Kong and South Korea warned against travel to the Mexican capital and three affected provinces. Italy, Poland and Venezuela also advised their citizens to postpone travel to affected areas of Mexico and the United States.
Symptoms of the flu-like illness include a fever of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius), body aches, coughing, a sore throat, respiratory congestion and, in some cases, vomiting and diarrhea.
At least 81 people have died from severe pneumonia caused by the disease in Mexico, according to the WHO.
The virus is usually contracted through direct contact with pigs, but Joseph Domenech, chief of animal health service at U.N. Food and Agriculture Agency in Rome, said all indications were that the virus is being spread through human-to-human transmission.
No vaccine specifically protects against swine flu, and it is unclear how much protection current human flu vaccines might offer.
Russia banned the import of meat products from Mexico, California, Texans and Kansas. South Korea said it would increase the number of its influenza virus checks on pork products from Mexico and the U.S.
Serbia on Saturday banned all imports of pork from North America, despite reassurances from the FAO that pigs appear not to be the immediate source of infection.
Italy's agriculture lobby, Coldiretti, warned against panic reaction, noting that farmers lost hundreds of millions of euros (dollars) because of consumers boycotts during the 2001 mad cow scare and the 2005 bird flu outbreak.
Japanese Agriculture Minister Shigeru Ishiba appeared on TV to calm consumers, saying it was safe to eat pork.
In Egypt, health authorities were examining about 350,000 pigs being raised in Cairo and other provinces for swine flu.
The WHO's pandemic alert level is currently at to phase 3. The organization said the level could be raised to phase 4 if the virus shows sustained ability to pass from human to human.
Phase 5 would be reached if the virus is found in at least two countries in the same region.
"The declaration of phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short," WHO said.
Phase 6 would indicate a full-scale global pandemic.
Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.