As both health and tourism in many countries became under threat with the news that a new strain of swine flu broke out in as many as 15 countries, it turns out that the widespread infection may not be as worrying as it first seemed.
Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova yesterday told the international media that the swine flu’s mortality rate was only comparable with that of seasonal flu. Mexican authorities however, have not discontinued the five-day general shutdown announced this week in an attempt to contain the virus.
The World Health Organisation Thursday classified the outbreak at level 5 – just a notch down from an official pandemic.
The WHO said yesterday that 15 countries have reported 615 infections with the new flu virus A-H1N1, widely known as swine flu. Most of the increase from yesterday’s 331 toll reflects the results of ongoing tests from Mexico, which had a backlog of samples in WHO labs, the United Nations agency said.
Mexico, the epicentre of the disease outbreak, now has 397 laboratory-confirmed human cases including 16 deaths, according to the WHO, whose data has been lagging national figures and is considered most authoritative. The second-most affected country, the United States, has 141 cases confirmed in WHO labs.
The new strain of the swine flu virus was first detected by public health agencies last March in three areas of Mexico.
On 25 April, the WHO said the situation was of “public health emergency concern”, and governments all over the world released statements over the issue saying that the situation was being closely monitored.
The next day, some schools and universities in Mexico City were closed due to confirmed cases in students. On 27 April, Mexican government officials announced a nationwide shutdown of schools.
By 28 April, patients infected with the strain were confirmed in Canada, Spain, the UK, New Zealand and Isreal. With over 2,500 candidate cases carrying the strain, the WHO raised a pandemic alert level to 4 – meaning that there is “sustained human to human transmission”. Level 5 and 6 represent “widespread human infection”.
On the local front, the Malta Tourism Authority this week told this newspaper that it was keeping a close eye on developments regarding the outbreak. Although the authority assured that it “is constantly monitoring the international situation as it evolves,” no measures had been taken by the Maltese government to limit the possible damage caused to Maltese tourism.
EU Health Commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou said that she does not “see any point of restricting travelling”.
Nevertheless the MTA said it “will take the necessary measures accordingly, depending on how this issue unfolds”.
Australia, China, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand are monitoring visitors returning from flu-affected areas to identify people with fever and respiratory symptoms.
While Serbia, China and Russia banned the importation of swine products from North America as a precaution, the WHO reassured that the disease is not spread through pork meat. The WHO Animal health section also condemned a move by the Egyptian government to kill 300,000 pigs – calling the move “scientifically unjustified”.