Ben-Gurion to Test Mexico Travelers for Swine Flu

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The Health Ministry has opened a health clinic at Ben-Gurion International Airport to test travelers returning from Mexico - one of several steps the government decided on yesterday to counter the swine flu outbreak. The government acted as two additional suspected cases of the disease came to light.

A 9-year-old Ra'anana girl and a 75-year-old woman, both of whom recently returned from Mexico, were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms yesterday, including fever, muscle soreness and a sore throat. The other students in the girl's class will stay home from school today, even though it is not yet clear whether she actually has swine flu.

The two possible flu patients are being held in quarantine while they await the results of blood tests - the girl at Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava and the woman at Laniado Hospital in Netanya, the same hospitals where the two Israelis with swine flu are quarantined. Four others who had been hospitalized with symptoms of the potentially deadly disease tested negative earlier this week.

At Ben-Gurion Airport's Terminal 3, health care workers at the newly opened clinic will be looking for initial signs of swine flu such as fever, coughing, sore throat, shortness of breath and runny nose. Passengers returning from Mexico with flu-like symptoms will be hospitalized for further testing. The clinic is headed by Dr. Ofra Havkin, the chief physician in the ministry's central district.

"The purpose of the clinic at Ben-Gurion Airport is to locate passengers who have been in Mexico over the past seven days, check whether symptoms of the disease, like fever, have developed, and warn everyone else to stay away from crowded places for a week," said Havkin. "A throat swab will be taken from all passengers, even if they don't have any symptoms, and will be kept for the future. At this stage, the clinic is geared solely to passengers who have returned from Mexico."

After an emergency meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Health Ministry is recommending that Israelis avoid traveling to Mexico and instructing all passengers returning from Mexico to quarantine themselves for a week, though the quarantine remains voluntary.

The returning passengers are being told that "since Mexico is the center of the outbreak," they must follow the ministry's guidelines "in order to protect your health and the health of those around you." They are being told to stay at home, minimize contact with household members, stay in a separate room if possible, and refrain from using public transportation. The ministry also advises them to go to the nearest emergency room immediately if they have a fever of 38 degrees Celsius or above.

The government has also decided to buy enough antiviral drugs - both Tamiflu, taken in pill form, and Relenza, an inhalant - to supply 30 percent of the population. The decision goes beyond the World Health Organization recommendation that governments should stockpile enough medication to treat about a quarter of their population.

Israel's two confirmed cases are among the 257 cases of confirmed swine flu around the world, the World Health Organization said. All but one of the flu-related deaths have occurred in Mexico, where the outbreak originated. Eight deaths there have been confirmed as resulting from the disease and an additional 160 are suspected to have resulted from it.

In addition, a 23-month-old boy from Mexico died of swine flu in Texas. Aside from Israel, swine flu cases have been confirmed in the United States, Canada, Spain, Germany, New Zealand and Austria, with Switzerland and the Netherlands the latest to confirm incidents of the disease.

The WHO - which has decided to refer to the virus by its scientific name, H1N1 influenza, to keep consumers from thinking it is spread by eating pork - raised its pandemic alert yesterday to phase 5, the second-highest level. This means it considers a full global outbreak of the disease to be imminent. "It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic," said WHO director general Margaret Chan.

In addition to the steps the government has announced to stem a local swine flu outbreak, the Health Ministry recommends that all Israelis practice meticulous personal hygiene, including washing their hands before eating or preparing food and after coughing, sneezing or going to the bathroom.

"Frequent hand washing reduces the chances of infecting others," the ministry said in a statement.

Other recommendations include covering the mouth with a tissue - not the hand - while coughing or sneezing.