EU health minister are holding urgent talks on the swine flu crisis in Luxembourg. Their meeting comes after the World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert level to phase five out of six for swine flu.
France is pushing for a suspension of EU flights to Mexico
European Health ministers have gathered in Luxembourg to coordinate national efforts in preventing the spread of swine flu in Europe. Officials, health experts and envoys from the 27-nation bloc have already been in crisis talks since the weekend to assess joint measures to contain the H1N1 virus and improve treatment for infected patients.
Prior to Thursday's emergency meeting, French health minister Roselyne Bachelot said she would call on the Luxembourg gathering to suspend all EU-flights to Mexico in a bid to contain the disease.
Swine flu cases have already been confirmed in Spain, Britain Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Other European countries, including Denmark, France, Norway and Finland are monitoring suspected cases. Authorities have suggested that it is only a question of time until Europe registers its first H1N1 casualty.
"Yes, people will die from this. It is not a question of whether people will die, but more a question of how many," said Robert Madelin, Director-General for Health and Consumer Policy at the European Commission, according to the news agency Reuters.
WHO says pandemic imminent
As more confirmed cases of infections emerged around the globe, the World Health Organization on Wednesday raised its pandemic alert level to phase five out of six for swine flu.
Phase five denotes a "strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize … the planned mitigation measures is short."
The UN agency's director-general Margaret Chan said the alert level had been raised because human-to-human transmission had been confirmed in two countries – the US and Mexico - in the same WHO region.
Fears over a pandemic are growing
The decision could lead the health body to recommend further measures to counter the outbreak, including for vaccine manufacturers to switch production from seasonal flu vaccines to a pandemic vaccine.
"All countries should immediately now activate their pandemic preparedness plans," Chan said.
"The biggest question is this: how severe will the pandemic be, especially now at the start," Chan said, but added the world "is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history."
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in Sweden backed the decision to raise the pandemic alert level and echoed sentiments at the WHO that the world was better prepared than ever before to deal with an epidemic. The Stockholm-based agency underlined that health officials in the EU have been working intensively on pandemic preparedness since 2005.
German experts underline that although H1N1 should not be underestimated it appears to be less lethal than originally believed. They also say that normal influenza, which occurs on a regular basis, claims the lives of over 5,000 people each year in Germany. In comparison, the swine flu has so far caused little damage, however, experts say the risk remains that H1N1 might mutate into a more deadly virus and therefore it is important to contain it.
US first country outside Mexico to report H1N1 death
While the virus has not claimed any lives in Europe yet, the United States reported its first casualty on Wednesday. The first swine flu victim outside the suspected epicenter Mexico was a 23-month-old child in Texas, the Centers for Disease Control said. A Houston health official later said the child was a Mexican who had been brought to the city for medical treatment. US officials have confirmed over 90 cases of swine flu so far, most of them mild.
The epicenter of H1N1 appears to be Mexico, although some experts have doubts about this alleging that China may be the real source of the virus. The swine flu strain is apparently born out of a mix of human and avian flu viruses that infected pigs, and China has in recent years battled deadly viruses such as the H5N1 bird flu.
The flu crisis is also having an economic impact
The Chinese agriculture ministry has reacted angrily to the accusations, saying that China did not export live pigs to Mexico or the United States and therefore it could not be the source of the outbreak.
Leaving the row over the origin of swine flu aside, it does appear to be raging most strongly in Mexico where almost all fatalities have been reported, although official confirmation is lacking in many alleged cases. In addition to the 168 suspected deaths, including 17 new ones announced late on Wednesday, the virus is believed to have infected some 2,500 people across Mexico. But only 1,311 suspected swine flu patients remained hospitalized.
In Mexico City, a metropolis of 20 million people, all schools, restaurants, nightclubs and public events have been shut down in a bid to stop the disease from spreading, bringing normal life to a virtual standstill.
Pork exports hit by swine flu
The virus is also having a strong economic impact with companies producing anti-flu medication recording a sharp rise in order levels. On the downside, pig farmers in the United States, Canada and Mexico are reeling from bans on their exports of live swine and pork meat imposed by several nations, including Russia and China.
Cleanliness and avoiding direct contact with potential carriers is the best preventive action
However, The World Trade Organization said on Wednesday it had not been told officially of any such bans, and the EU and Japan said they would not follow suit.
In a bid to beef up pork’s tarnished image, US officials have renamed swine flu the “2009 H1N1 flu” while insisting that people could not catch the virus from eating pork.
Critics say many of the current or planned restrictions and measures will not have any decisive impact on the spread of the disease but that they are rather designed to calm the public. Many experts maintain that the best prevention against contracting the virus is simple cleanliness and avoiding direct contact with potential carriers.