Mexico City: The World Health Organization or WHO raised its global alert level on Monday, signaling the swine flu virus was spreading from human to human in community outbreaks, but it stopped short of declaring a full-blown pandemic.
The WHO announcement in Geneva followed a decision by the top EU health official urging Europeans to postpone nonessential travel to parts of the United States and Mexico because of the virus.
Mexico health department spokesman Carlos Olmos confirmed the move by the WHO to raise the alert level from Phase 3 to Phase 4.
Putting an alert at Phases 4 or 5 signals that the swine flu virus is becoming increasingly adept at spreading among humans. That move could lead governments to set trade, travel and other restrictions aimed at limiting the disease’s spread.
The WHO’s Phase 6 is the pandemic phase, characterized by outbreaks in at least two regions of the world.
US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the United States is preparing as if the swine flu outbreak already is a full pandemic.
The virus was suspected in up to 152 deaths in Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak with more than 1,600 cases suspected, while 50 cases none fatal were confirmed in the United States. Worldwide there were 79 confirmed cases, including six in Canada, one in Spain and two in Scotland.
WHO reported a slightly lower figure, 73. It was still awaiting official reports from the UK about the Scottish cases, and it was reporting different numbers of cases in the US and Mexico from what those governments confirmed.
Russia, Hong Kong and Taiwan said they would quarantine visitors showing symptoms of the virus amid global concern about a possible pandemic.
European and US markets bounced back from early losses as pharmaceutical stocks were lifted by expectations that health authorities will increase stockpiles of anti-viral drugs. The stocks of airlines, hotels and other travel-related companies posted sharper losses.
“Today we’ve seen increased number of confirmed cases in several countries,” WHO spokesman Paul Garwood said, “WHO is very concerned about the number of cases that are appearing, and the fact that more and more cases are appearing in different countries.”
President Barack Obama said the threat of spreading infections is cause for concern but “not a cause for alarm.”
In Luxembourg, European Union Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou urged Europeans to postpone nonessential travel to parts of the United States and Mexico affected by swine flu, toning down earlier comments referring to all of North America.
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.
Dr. Richard Besser, acting head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said the EU recommendation was not warranted. “At this point I would not put a travel restriction or recommendation against coming to the United States.”
WHO spokesman Peter Cordingley singled out air travel as an easy way the virus could spread, noting that the WHO estimates that up to 500,000 people are on planes at any time.
New Zealand was testing 13 students, their parents and teachers who were showing flu-like symptoms after returning from Mexico, said Health Minister Tony Ryall. Israel, France, Brazil and Switzerland were also conducting tests.
At Germany’s bustling Frankfurt Airport, people suspected of having the disease were examined before getting off planes, said the health minister for Hesse state, Juergen Banzer. The policy was in effect since Saturday at continental Europe’s second-busiest airport, after Charles de Gaulle in Paris.
Governments in Asia with potent memories of SARS and avian flu outbreaks heeded the warning amid global fears of a pandemic.
Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines dusted off thermal scanners used in the 2003 SARS crisis and were checking for signs of fever among passengers from North America. South Korea and Indonesia introduced similar screening.
In Malaysia, health workers in face masks took the temperatures of passengers as they arrived on a flight from Los Angeles.
India will start screening people arriving from Mexico, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Spain, Britain and France for flu-like symptoms, said Vineet Chawdhry, a top Health Ministry official. It also will contact people who have arrived from Mexico and other affected countries in the past 10 days to check for the symptoms, he said.
Some officials cautioned that the checks might not be enough.
The virus could move between people before any symptoms show up, said John Simon, a scientific adviser to Hong Kong’s Center for Health Protection.
China, Russia and Ukraine banned imports of pork and pork products from Mexico and three U.S. states that have reported cases of swine flu, and other governments were increasing their screening of pork imports. Azerbaijan banned all livestock products from all of North America.