In the wake of a sudden outbreak of a new swine flu strain that has killed as many as 68 people and affected more than 1,000 across Mexico, the Health Ministry issued a statement on Saturday assuring the public that no cases of swine flu have been recorded in Israel.
However, the ministry reissued standard protocols to hospitals and HMOs so that they would be prepared to field an outbreak should the strain infect Israelis. The ministry also issued a recommendation to all Israelis returning from Mexico to consult a doctor if they develop symptoms within seven days of their return.
"We are closely following the developments and recommendations of international bodies," the Health Ministry said in a statement. "Personal hygiene must be practiced regardless of the current incident."
According to the World Health Organization chief, the swine flu outbreak has pandemic potential, and it may be too late to contain it.
The disease has already reached Texas and California, and with 24 new suspected cases reported Saturday in Mexico City alone, schools were closed and all public events suspended in the capital until further notice - including more than 500 concerts and other gatherings in the metropolis of 20 million.
A hot line fielded 2,366 calls in its first hours from frightened city residents who suspected they might have the disease. Soldiers and health workers handed out masks at subway stops, and hospitals dealt with crowds of people seeking help.
The World Health Organization's director-general, Margaret Chan, said the outbreak of the never-before-seen virus is a very serious situation and has pandemic potential. But she said it is still too early to tell whether it would become a pandemic.
The situation is evolving quickly, Chan said in a telephone news conference in Geneva. A new disease is by definition poorly understood.
This virus is a mix of human, pig and bird strains that prompted WHO to meet Saturday to consider declaring an international public health emergency - a step that could lead to travel advisories, trade restrictions and border closures. Spokesman Gregory Hartl said a decision would not be made Saturday.
Scientists have warned for years about the potential for a pandemic from viruses that mix genetic material from humans and animals. Another reason to worry is that authorities said the dead so far don't include vulnerable infants and elderly. The Spanish flu pandemic, which killed at least 40 million people worldwide in 1918-19, also first struck otherwise healthy young adults.
This swine flu and regular flu can have similar symptoms - mostly fever, cough and sore throat, though some of the U.S. victims who recovered also experienced vomiting and diarrhea. But unlike with regular flu, humans don't have natural immunity to a virus that includes animal genes - and new vaccines can take months to bring into use.
But experts at the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the nature of this outbreak may make containment impossible. Already, more than 1,000 people have been infected in as many as 14 of Mexico's 32 states, according to daily newspaper El Universal. Tests show 20 people have died of the swine flu, and 48 other deaths were probably due to the same strain.
The CDC and Canadian health officials were studying samples sent from Mexico, and airports around the world were screening passengers from Mexico for symptoms of the new flu strain, saying they may quarantine passengers.
But CDC officials dismissed the idea of trying that in the United States, and some expert said it's too late to try to contain spread of the virus.
They noted there had been no direct contact between the cases in the San Diego and San Antonio areas, suggesting the virus had already spread from one geographic area through other undiagnosed people.
Anything that would be about containing it right now would purely be a political move, said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota pandemic expert.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon said his government only discovered the nature of the virus late Thursday, with the help of international laboratories. We are doing everything necessary, he said in a brief statement.
But the government had said for days that its growing flu caseload was nothing unusual, so the sudden turnaround angered many who wonder if Mexico missed an opportunity to contain the outbreak.
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