Swine flu pandemic threat grows

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  April 30, 2009 at 12:04 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 30 (UPI) -- The swine flu epidemic is spreading around the world, and global health officials warn that it's on course to become a world pandemic.

The 193-nation World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, Thursday raised its swine flu alert to phase 5, the second time it has raised it in three days. That means the WHO believes a global pandemic in at least two regions of the world is imminent.

The epidemic spread to at least six more U.S. states -- Maine, Michigan, Arizona, Massachusetts, Nevada and Indiana. In Texas, the second most populous U.S. state, the entire school system of the city of Fort Worth with 80,000 children was shut down for at least 10 days. Neighboring Dallas may soon follow.

Some 14 cases have now been confirmed in California, with another 17 cases suspected.

Texas also reported its first fatality, a 22-month-old Mexican baby who had experienced previous health problems.

Maryland reported its first six cases -- three in Baltimore County and three in Anne Arundel County -- and 10 more suspected cases were reported at the University of Delaware.

In Mexico, where the outbreak began, the toll rose to 176 dead and 2,000 suspected cases. European officials say they expect to have deaths from swine flu in their region, with one saying there could be tens of thousands of deaths. At least 10 countries have confirmed cases of swine flu. The first cases have been reported in Peru and Switzerland.

But President Barack Obama still refuses to close the U.S. border with Mexico.

Vice President Joe Biden, speaking on NBC's "Today" show Thursday, said he would recommend his family members not to travel on subways or fly to Mexico. "I would tell members of my family -- and I have -- I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now," the vice president said.

"When one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft," Biden said.

"I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway," he added.

Mexican President Filipe Calderon gave a national television broadcast Wednesday and shut down all non-essential federal services for at least five days from Friday through Tuesday. That will include restaurants, schools, museums, public services and professional soccer matches. Most federal government offices will be closed.

Calderon urged people to stay in their homes during the weekend and said some closures and restrictions may be extended further into next week.

Mexican Health Minister Jose Cordova said the ban would also extend to health clubs and gyms. However, officials said police stations, airports, bus stations and Mexico City's subway system will stay open, as will banks, food stores, pharmacies and gasoline stations.

The 1918 worldwide pandemic of Spanish flu was one of the worst in modern history. It infected 500 million people, more than a quarter of the entire human race, and killed 50 million of them -- a death rate of 10 percent. The pandemic killed five times as many people as had died in World War I.

However, scores of thousands of deaths per year from flu are actually a regular, annual occurrence in the United States. The Los Angeles Times reported that last year 36,000 people died in the United States from flu and between 5 percent and 20 percent of the entire population of 300 million get infected with it -- generating a mortality rate of between 0.24 percent and 0.96 percent.

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