April 26, 2009

New Swine Flu Has Pandemic Potential

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Saturday that the new strain of swine flu that has already killed 68 people in Mexico has the potential to become pandemic.  This report came after new lab tests indicated the virus could be spreading to the United States.

New York City health officials said that they have identified a type A influenza strain in eight school children that is likely to be the swine flu.  An additional 75 students who had recently traveled to Mexico are also being examined after exhibiting some flu-like symptoms.

In Kansas, state health commissioners reported an additional two definite new cases of swine flu, according to CNN, adding to the eight confirmed cases in California and Texas in the last week.

In Mexico's densely populated capital city where the majority of deaths have occurred, some 20 million people are taking every possible precaution against the outbreak and fearing the worst.  Bars and restaurants have spontaneously closed their doors for the weekends as most people are opting to stay indoors for the weekend in an effort to avoid contamination. 

"I think it's worse than they're telling us," said Mexico City resident Lidia Diaz through her government-issued surgical mask.

Medical Experts from WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have already teamed up with Mexican officials to assist them in testing thousands of patients with flu symptoms for the deadly new virus.

WHO has called the outbreaks a "public health event of international concern," though they have not yet officially raised the threat level to "pandemic" "“ an indicator reserved for an epidemic that is both fatal and globally threatening.  In the meantime, they have however urged all countries to heighten surveillance for any potential new outbreaks.

"It has pandemic potential because it is infecting people.  However, we cannot say on the basis of currently available laboratory, epidemiological and clinical evidence whether or not it will indeed cause a pandemic," WHO Director-general Dr. Margaret Chan told reporters in Geneva.

"The situation is evolving quickly," said Chan in a telephone news conference. "A new disease is by definition poorly understood."

Epidemiologists remain puzzled over this flu strain.  Though in the past medical researchers have identified viruses that were genetic mixtures of various animal flu strains, this bug is particularly unusual in that it appears to contain an intercontinental genetic mixture of North American avian flu, European and Asian swine flu, and human flu elements.

Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC added, "We are worried and because we are worried we are acting aggressively on a number of fronts...The situation is serious."

The "Hong Kong flu" of 1968 "“ which killed some 1 million people worldwide "“ was the last officially recognized flu pandemic.

Mexican officials have confirmed 20 flu-related deaths thus far and suspect that the virus could be responsible for at least another 48.  The majority of the victims were between the ages of 25 and 45, a disturbing analog to past epidemics that have also exhibited a disproportionately high incidence of fatality among healthy young adults.

In all, officials believe that more than 1,000 cases have been reported in Mexico thus far, though a number of them remain unconfirmed.

Not waiting for all the details about the virus to emerge, Mexican officials have closed down schools and museums for at least a week and canceled over 550 public events in the capital city over the next ten days in an effort to contain the virus and prevent additional infections.

Government officials know that a worsening of the outbreak could deal a major blow to the country's tourism industry this year as well as to domestic spending.  The nation is already struggling with the global economic crisis and an expensive army-led crusade against vicious drug cartels.

President Calderon attempted to reassure citizens in an official statement, saying that the flu is "curable", while Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard announced his goal of checking the spread of the disease within the capital.

For now, no countries have restricted travel to Mexico, though several governments have advised citizens to inform themselves on information about the flu prior to traveling.  In Mexico City's international airport, medical teams are issuing health questionnaires to all passengers leaving or entering the country.

Several economists have already commented that in addition to the health risks that accompany a pandemic outbreak, it could also cause a serious setback for international financial markets that are already struggling to recover from the worst global recession in decades.


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