Cases of swine flu were confirmed early today in Israel and New Zealand, the first definitive proof that the dangerous new virus has spread to the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions, but international health officials said there was little point in imposing border or travel restrictions or otherwise trying to contain the virus.
The World Health Organization raised its official tally of confirmed swine flu cases today from 73 to 79, adding a second case in Spain and confirming two cases in Britain and three in New Zealand.
The WHO, which yesterday raised its pandemic threat level from 3 to 4, two levels below a full-scale pandemic, will not meet today to consider another increase, a spokesman said at a news conference.
While the agency said people should think carefully before traveling to or from areas known to be affected by the flu virus, spokesman Gregory Hartl said it considers formal travel restrictions and border closures ineffective because people who would be screened could be infected but not yet showing symptoms.
"Border controls don't work. Screening doesn't work," Hartl said, according to Reuters news service, describing the economically-damaging travel bans as basically pointless in public health terms.
He said "we are still at phase 4" in terms of threat level because officials do not yet "have incontrovertible evidence" that the virus spreads easily from human to human. Yesterday was the first time the international body had elevated its official estimation of the threat of an influenza pandemic up from level 3, using a system that was revised in the wake of the 2003 SARS outbreak.
"A pandemic is not considered inevitable at this time," said Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's assistant director general for health security and environment. "The situation is fluid, and the situation continues to evolve."
What is clear, officials say, is that the virus is causing sustained community-wide outbreaks, with a rise in the suspected death toll in Mexico to 149 as of yesterday, along with the confirmation of the first case in Europe and a doubling of the number of confirmed cases in the United States. In the first signs that the outbreak could be taking a toll on the staggering global economy, oil prices, the Mexican peso and airline stocks all plunged.
The level 4 alert could prompt health authorities in some circumstances to launch massive efforts to contain an outbreak, but Fukuda said the virus had spread too widely to make that realistic.
"At this time, containment is not a feasible option," Fukuda said. "This virus has already spread quite far."
"With the virus being widespread," he said, "closing borders or restricting travel really has very little effect in stopping the movement of this virus."
Instead, the alert was designed to prompt countries to intensify efforts to minimize the spread of the virus by identifying new cases and clusters quickly and taking other measures ...
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