WASHINGTON, April 27 (UPI) -- The U.S. government has declared a state of emergency because of the swine flu that has now killed more than 100 people in Mexico.
Some 20 cases have been reported in the United States, and 1,600 cases are suspected in Mexico. On Monday, as many as one in five people in Mexico City, with its 20 million inhabitants, were reported to be wearing face masks. Cases have been reported as far apart as New Zealand, Spain, Brazil and Israel.
Androulla Vassiliou, health commissioner for the 27-nation European Union, has advised the half a billion inhabitants of the EU nations to avoid visiting the United States as well as Mexico if they can. Dr. Richard Besser, acting head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, criticized Vassiliou's statement as being alarmist and unnecessary. However, a U.S. State Department official said Monday the government would issue a travel advisory telling Americans to avoid traveling to Mexico unless it was absolutely essential.
No deaths have been reported in the United States so far, but CDC experts have warned that at least a few fatalities appear likely.
The Obama administration has been very cautious in its response to the crisis. President Barack Obama told the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday that there was "no cause for alarm."
On Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told those attending a White House briefing she was not requiring passengers flying into the United States on airliners from Mexico to be tested for swine flu. The 193-nation World Health Organization estimates that half a million people are traveling on civilian airliners around the world at any time.
The situation in the United States gives particular cause for concern because, as United Press International's Sara Sargent reported on Oct. 2, the U.S. Government Accountability Office warned in a report that an influenza pandemic could overwhelm the U.S. healthcare system, which remains extremely inadequately prepared to deal with it.
The WHO still rates the Mexican outbreak at level 3, meaning it has not yet been documented as spreading easily between human beings. If that were to happen, the WHO alert would be raised to level 4 or 5.
The swine flu currently sweeping Mexico is a respiratory illness that is not usually fatal, though in about 6 percent of cases so far, it appears to have been. But it is exceptionally infectious and carries the risk that it could mutate into a dangerous version.
Last October's GAO report criticized the Department of Health and Human Services under the Bush administration, saying its treatment-dispersion techniques were still ineffective.
The nightmare control model for an influenza pandemic is the 1918-19 Spanish flu that at one point infected half a billion people around the world -- more than 25 percent of the entire human race. It is believed to have killed more people than World War I. Experts have warned that there are not enough hospital beds in the United States to treat a comparable number of victims from that kind of pandemic today.
The GAO report last October said it could take 20 to 23 weeks to create a new vaccine to deal with the crisis. However, U.S. officials stress that so far, there is no reason to believe that any pigs anywhere in the United States have been infected with the virus.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say swine flu viruses cannot be spread by food, so people cannot be infected by ingesting pork or pork products. The U.S. government noted that cooking pork to an internal temperature of 160 F destroys all viruses, and it also advised people to wash their hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after touching raw pork and to avoid any risk of contaminating other foods by contact with raw pork.
The new swine flu virus is a new strain of flu that contains genetic material from swine, avian and human influenza viruses. It is spread either through contact with infected pigs or environments contaminated with swine flu viruses or through contact with someone who already has swine flu.