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EUR: WHO defends pandemic alarm as swine flu spreads

12 May 2009 5:57 PM

GENEVA, May 12 AFP - The World Health Organisation (WHO) has defended its decision to raise the global pandemic alarm for swine flu as Cuba, Thailand and Finland confirmed their first cases of the virus.

The global health body's acting Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda on Tuesday insisted the outbreak would have been more severe if the WHO had not raised its pandemic alert two weeks ago.

"If countries had not been thinking about what to do in this kind of situation, the fact is we would have had much more confusion," Fukuda said.

"In many ways, the severity would have been greater."

The WHO raised its alert to five on a scale of six two weeks ago, signalling that a pandemic was "imminent" after Mexico and the United States showed sustained local transmission of the influenza A(H1N1) virus.

The alert prompted countries to take specific measures, including looking at the distribution of antiviral drugs or issuing travel advice at airports.

The WHO's death toll passed 50 at the weekend after Costa Rica reported its first fatality from the flu - believed to be a mix of bird and human flu that came together in pigs - and the United States confirmed a third death.

Thailand on Tuesday confirmed its first two cases in patients who had travelled to Mexico, the epicentre of the outbreak where authorities have put the death toll at 56. The WHO has only confirmed 48 of those deaths.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said tests carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States had confirmed the A(H1N1) virus in a sample from the patient.

Finland confirmed its first two cases of swine flu on Tuesday while Canada confirmed 40 new cases, bringing the total number across the country to 331.

Cuba had earlier reported its first case in a Mexican student, one of a group of 14 Mexicans studying in Havana who were tested for the disease, according to the health ministry.

Local television said "all but one" were in good health.

But attention was most focused on China, where authorities confirmed that a 30-year-old man was hospitalised with the virus after arriving in the southwestern city of Chengdu on a flight from the United States.

"This is our country's first case of A(H1N1)," Chinese health ministry spokesman Mao Qunan said on Monday.

State television said the man, who was in a stable condition, flew from Tokyo to Beijing on a Northwest Airlines flight before connecting on a domestic flight to Chengdu.

Beijing on Tuesday ordered stepped-up flu monitoring nationwide and said it had found and isolated nearly all those who travelled on flights with the man.

China had previously confirmed a case, a Mexican national, in the semi-autonomous southern city of Hong Kong.

The swine flu virus was first reported in Mexico in April, but has since spread to more than 30 nations.

US health officials meanwhile reported that the 2,600 confirmed cases across the United States represented just the tip of the iceberg of actual infections.

"Many states did not report over the weekend, so we expect a big jump in the number of cases tomorrow," said Anne Schuchat, the interim deputy director at the CDC.

Most of the 4,694 cases confirmed by the WHO have involved relatively mild symptoms and the virus has proved to be treatable with antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu so far, prompting questions about whether the WHO had acted too rashly.

But the WHO's Fukuda defended the agency.

"It's often hard to see what you would have prevented by doing so much work ... if things turn out that few people die, it would be the best of all possible outcomes," he said.

Mexico is struggling to get back to normal, and six schools remained shut on Monday amid fears of a further flu outbreak.

Mexican authorities announced a $US1 billion ($A1.32 billion) business support program to help counter the impact of swine flu, particularly on the tourism industry.

Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said its infection toll stood at 2,059, with the 56 deaths "equivalent to 2.7 per cent of all cases".

In Japan, more than 50 people remain in isolation after they flew in on Friday from Detroit on the same plane as a teacher and three students who have tested positive for A(H1N1).

Swiss drugs giant Roche said on Tuesday it was donating 5.65 million treatment courses of its antiviral drug Tamiflu to help fight the swine flu outbreak.