First Swine Flu Death Outside Mexico


swine-flu6A baby in Texas has died of the H1N1 flu strain, the first confirmed death outside Mexico from the swine flu virus which health officials fear could cause a pandemic as it spread to two more countries in Europe. Nearly a week after the threat emerged in Mexico, where up to 159 people have died, a U.S. official said today that a 23-month-old had died in the state bordering Mexico. A health official said the baby was Mexican and was in the United States for medical treatment.Richard Besser, acting head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he expected more bad news even though most of the 65 U.S. cases of swine flu were mild.

“We’re going to find more cases. We’re going to find more severe cases and I expect that we’ll continue to see additional deaths,” he said.

President Barack Obama said the death showed it was time to take “utmost precautions” against the possible spread of the virus.

Germany reported its first three infections and Austria one, taking to nine the number of countries known to be affected.

“We have about 100 cases outside Mexico, and now you have one death. That is very significant,” said Lo Wing Lok, an infectious disease expert in Hong Kong.

France said it would seek on Thursday a European Union ban on flights to Mexico because of the influenza outbreak. Argentina and Cuba have already banned them.

The EU, the United States and Canada have advised against non-essential travel to the popular tourist destination.

Like the baby in the United States, all seven new cases in Europe had recently been in Mexico.

They comprised a Bavarian couple in their 30s, a 22-year-old woman from Hamburg, a 28-year-old Austrian, who was now recovering, and three Britons with mild symptoms – adults in London and Birmingham and a girl aged 12 in southwest England.

Cases have been confirmed in Canada, New Zealand, Israel and Spain.

The World Health Organisation said it might raise its pandemic alert level to phase five – the second highest – if it were confirmed that infected people in at least two countries were spreading the disease to other people in a sustained way.

Before the U.S. death was reported, Keiji Fukuda, acting WHO assistant director for health security and environment, said it could be a “very mild pandemic”, adding, however, that influenza “moves in ways we cannot predict”.

H1N1 swine flu poses the biggest risk of a large-scale pandemic since avian flu re-emerged in 2003, killing 257 people of 421 infected in 15 countries. In 1968 a “Hong Kong” flu pandemic killed about 1 million people globally, with twice that number dying a decade earlier.

Stock markets in Asia and Europe rose on Wednesday, partly on optimism the world could be spared a deadly pandemic. However, considerable market uncertainty remained.

The new strain contains DNA from avian, swine and human viruses and appears to have evolved the ability to pass easily from one person to another, unlike most swine H1N1 viruses. It cannot be caught from eating pig meat products but Egypt ordered all its pigs to be slaughtered and some countries, led by Russia and China, have banned U.S. pork imports.

The World Trade Organisation said today it had not been told officially of any such bans, and the EU and Japan said they would not follow suit.

Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said more than 1,300 people were in hospitals, some of them seriously ill, out of a total of about 2,500 suspected cases.

“In the last few days there has been a decline (in cases),” he said. “The death figures have remained more or less stable.”

Victims included young adults, a different pattern from common seasonal flu that mainly kills the elderly and infirm. It kills 250,000 to 500,000 people in a normal year, including healthy children in rich countries.

Health agencies advise frequent hand-washing and covering sneezes and coughs to help stop the spread. Experts generally agree that face masks, especially the surgical masks seen on the streets of Mexico City, offer little protection.

The outbreak has deeply affected life in Mexico and ravaged tourism, a key earner.

Mexico City was unusually quiet, with schools closed. Many parents took their children in to work.

All Mayan ruins and Aztec pyramids, dotted through central and southern Mexico, were closed until further notice.

Cruise firms Carnival and Royal Caribbean said they were temporarily suspending port calls in the country and land-based tour groups were calling off trips.

In a sign of how mild many cases outside Mexico have been, New Zealand gave the all-clear for a group of students and a teacher who caught the virus.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said pork, soybean and corn prices had fallen in the past two days and criticised what he said were illogical trade restrictions on pork.

“We want to make sure that a handful of our trading partners don’t take advantage of this legitimate concern over public health and engage in behavior that could also damage the world’s economy,” said U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.

{Reuters/EWA Center/ Newscenter}