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US: More US swine flu cases, hospitalisations: officials

By Karin Zeitvogel
29 Apr 2009 2:40 AM

WASHINGTON, April 28 AFP - Health officials confirmed 20 new cases of human swine flu in the United States on Tuesday, including an unspecified number of hospitalisations, as experts warned of a looming pandemic.

"The human swine flu outbreak continues to grow in the United States and internationally," the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said, updating the number of confirmed US cases of the influenza strain from 44 to 64.

That included "a number of hospitalisations" and came amid "a more serious" situation internationally, the CDC said on its website.

Before Tuesday, only one person had been hospitalised for swine flu in the United States, which appears to have been hit by a much milder virus than the one suspected of causing over 150 deaths in Mexico, the epicentre of the outbreak.

The United States has the second highest swine flu infection rate after Mexico, where officials put the likely toll from the virus at 152 Tuesday. Twenty of the deaths in Mexico have been firmly linked to the virus.

Britain and Spain have both said they had registered patients sick with swine flu, and Israel has also confirmed two cases, giving the outbreak that began in Mexico some of the hallmarks of a pandemic.

All of the US cases are still confined to five states -- California, Kansas, New York, Ohio and Texas -- indicating that the increased number of confirmed cases could be the result of further testing at some of the sites where the virus had been detected earlier, and not to a spread of the disease.

The higher number of US cases came hours after the World Health Organisation (WHO) raised its six-phase flu pandemic alert level from three to four, signalling a "significant increase in the risk of a pandemic."

April Johnson, an assistant professor of epidemiology and public health at Purdue University, said the outbreak was "definitely verging on being a pandemic."

"There are certain criteria to categorise whether this is going to be a pandemic or not, and some of that is widespread sustainability of transmission between persons, but also looking at it geographically and how many geographic locations it becomes established in," she told AFP.

"It seems to be fairly widespread, and as people travel, the virus will travel and it has the potential to become more established in different countries such that it could become a pandemic."

Travellers entering the United States are already being screened for signs of the virus and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says it has 19 quarantine centers on standby at ports of entry.

A Senate panel that funds pandemic preparedness will hold an emergency meeting on Tuesday that will focus on the US public health response to swine flu.

"Pandemics start as a few isolated incidents, but can spread faster than a wildfire," Senator Tom Harkin, who called the meeting, said in a statement.

Wall Street skidded in opening trades Tuesday, as investors' nerves frayed because of the spread of swine flu and ongoing economic woes.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 84.35 points (1.05 percent) to 7,940.65 in the first trades, and the Nasdaq composite shed 16.35 points (0.97 percent) to 1,663.06.

US Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack assured consumers that the US food supply was safe and that authorities were closely monitoring the outbreak.

But in spite of repeated reassurances that swine flu -- despite its name -- is not transmitted through pork, Russia widened a ban on imports of US meat products, to include all five states which have reported cases of human swine flu.

US officials have said they are "moving aggressively" to contain the rapidly evolving disease, using a host of tools to prevent a pandemic to rival those that have killed millions of people in the past.

"There is no single action that will control an outbreak but combined actions taken around the country will help to stem the tide," CDC acting director Richard Besser said Monday.

The CDC is due to hold a news conference later on Tuesday about the outbreak.