Obama says swine flu is not 'cause for alarm'
Washington DC — (AP) - President Barack Obama says the spread of swine flu is a cause for concern, but "not a cause for alarm" and he's staying on top of the problem.
Obama told a gathering of scientists Monday that the administration is "closely monitoring" cases of swine flu, how many people have it and what the threat is. Obama also said the American people can expect to get regular and frequent updates about what Washington is doing.
He said the swine flu threat dramatizes how the United States cannot allow itself to fall behind in scientific and medical research.
EU health officials urged Europeans on Monday to postpone nonessential travel to the United States and Mexico because of the swine flu virus, and Spanish health officials confirmed the first case outside North America.
Russia, Hong Kong and Taiwan said they would quarantine visitors showing symptoms of the virus amid a surging global concern about a possible pandemic.
World stock markets fell as investors worried that the deadly outbreak could go global and derail any global economic recovery. Airlines took the brunt of the selling.
The virus was suspected in up to 103 deaths in Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak with more than 1,600 cases suspected, while 20 cases were confirmed in the United States and six in Canada.
In Luxembourg, European Union Health Commissioner Andorra Vassiliou urged Europeans to postpone nonessential travel to the United States and Mexico "unless it is very urgent for them."
The EU health commissioner only makes recommendations to the 27 member countries; they must make a final decision to set travel advisories through their foreign ministries.
A top German holiday tour operator said it was suspending charter flights to Mexico City.
"These are early days. It's quite clear that there is a potential for this virus to become a pandemic and threaten globally," World Health Organization spokesman Peter Cordingley told AP Television News.
"But we honestly don't know," he added. "We don't know enough yet about how this virus operates. More work needs to be done."
Spanish Health Minister Trinidad Jimenez said the country's first confirmed swine flu case was a young man in the town of Almansa who recently returned from Mexico for university studies and is responding well to treatment. Neither he nor any of the 20 other people under observation for the virus are in serious condition.
Three New Zealanders recently home from Mexico were suspected of having swine flu. Israel has put two people under observation, while France and Brazil have also reported suspected cases.
Cordingley singled out plane travel as an easy way the virus could spread, noting that the WHO estimates that up to 500,000 people are aboard planes at any time.
Canada confirmed cases in six people, including some students who - like some New York City spring-breakers - got mildly ill in Mexico. Countries across Asia promised to quarantine feverish travelers returning from flu-affected areas.
The U.S. declared a health emergency so it could ship roughly 12 million doses of flu-fighting medications from a federal stockpile to states in case they eventually need them - although, with 20 confirmed cases of people recovering easily, they don't appear to for now.
Make no mistake: There is not a global pandemic - at least not yet. It's not clear how many people truly have this particular strain, or why all countries but Mexico are seeing mild disease.
Nor is it clear if the new virus spreads easily, one milestone that distinguishes a bad flu from a global crisis. But waiting to take protective steps until after a pandemic is declared would be too late.
"We do think this will continue to spread, but we are taking aggressive actions to minimize the impact on people's health," said Dr. Richard Besser, acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The World Bank said it would send Mexico $25 million in loans for immediate aid and $180 million in long-term assistance to address the outbreak, along with advice on how other nations have dealt with similar crises.
A potential pandemic virus is defined, among other things, as a novel strain that's not easily treated. This new strain can be treated with Tamiflu and Relenza, but not two older flu drugs.
Also, the WHO wants to know if it's easily spread from one person to a second who then spreads it again - something U.S. officials suspect and are investigating.
"Right now we have cases occurring in a couple of different countries and in multiple locations, but we also know that in the modern world that cases can simply move around from single locations and not really become established," cautioned WHO flu chief Dr. Keiji Fukuda.
There is no vaccine against swine flu, but the CDC has taken the initial step necessary for producing one - creating a seed stock of the virus - should authorities decide that's necessary.
Last winter's flu shot offers no cross-protection to the new virus, although it's possible that older people exposed to various Type A flu strains in the past may have some immunity, CDC officials said Sunday.
Worldwide, attention focused sharply on travelers.
"It was acquired in Mexico, brought home and spread," Nova Scotia's chief public health officer, Dr. Robert Strang, said of Canada's first four confirmed cases, in student travelers.
New Zealand said 10 students who took a school trip to Mexico probably had swine flu, and on Monday it said three students in a second group just back from Mexico probably have it as well.
A New York City school where eight cases are confirmed will be closed Monday and Tuesday, and 14 schools in Texas, including a high school where two cases were confirmed, will be closed for at least the next week.
China, Russia, Taiwan and Bolivia began planning to quarantine travelers arriving from flu-affected areas if they have symptoms. Italy, Poland and Venezuela advised citizens to postpone travel to affected parts of Mexico and the U.S.
Multiple airlines, including American, United, Continental, US Airways, Mexicana and Air Canada, are waiving their usual penalties for changing reservations for anyone traveling to, from or through Mexico, but have not canceled flights.
Officials along the U.S.-Mexico border were asking health care providers to take respiratory samples from patients who appear to have the flu. Travelers were being asked if they visited flu-stricken areas.
The U.S. hasn't advised against travel to Mexico but does urge precautions such as frequent hand-washing while there, and has begun questioning arriving travelers about flu symptoms.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)