WHO Warns of Possible Pandemic as Mexico Seeks to Contain Swine Flu

3 new cases reported in United States, health officials say

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By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter

SUNDAY, April 26 (HealthDay News) -- Mexican authorities continued to take dramatic steps over the weekend to try to contain the swine flu outbreak that officials say has killed as many as 81 people, and sickened more than 1,300 others.

In the United States, two new cases were reported Saturday by health officials in Kansas, as well as a new case in California, bringing the national total to 11, according to the Associated Press. Eight more cases of "probable" swine flu involving school students have been identified by New York City health officials. Cases in the U.S. have so far remained mild.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Interim Deputy Director for Science and Public Health Program, told reporters on Saturday that her agency was "worried, and because we are worried we are acting aggressively on a number of fronts" to investigate the outbreak. She added that, because of the wide geographic spread of the virus so far, the outbreak is already "beyond containment."

But Schuchat added that U.S. health officials had numerous tools to fight the illness' spread and protect the health of Americans.

Earlier in the day, the head of the World Health Organization said that the outbreak has the potential to develop into a pandemic.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the outbreak involves "an animal strain of the H1N1 virus, and it has pandemic potential." But, she added, it was too early to say whether a pandemic would occur, the Associated Press reported.

Twenty-four suspected new cases of swine flu were reported Saturday in Mexico City alone. The government ordered schools closed and all public events have been suspended for the time being, including more than 500 concerts and other gatherings in the city of 20 million residents, the AP said.

The WHO has advised countries around the world to look for similar outbreaks.

All of the original eight patients in the United States -- six from California and two from Texas -- have recovered from their infections. According to the AP, Kansas health officials say that the two new cases there, involving a married couple, were also mild. The newly identified case in California involves a 35-year-old woman who was hospitalized but has recovered.

Speaking to reporters in a Saturday afternoon teleconference, the CDC's Schuchat said that "at present there are still eight confirmed human cases of swine influenza in the United States. There is a serious situation in Mexico with severe disease and a number of confirmed swine influenza infections, generally among adults." She stressed that "these are very dynamic times and many things will be changing," and the spread and severity of the virus would be "very hard to predict."

While agents at the Border Infectious Disease Surveillance system at the U.S.-Mexico border are on high alert for those who might be carrying the flu, containing the virus was probably out of the question, Schuchat said. "If we found only a new influenza virus in one place, in a small community, we might be able to quench or contain it. But with infections in many different communities as we're seeing, we don't think that containment is feasible," she said. She added that as investigators probe deeper into cases in cities away from California and Texas, new cases are likely to emerge.

But Schuchat stressed that there are other ways to fight the flu. "Containment would be fantastic, but we think that there are many, many tools in our toolbox to reduce the illness and suffering that this virus is causing, and reduce transmission -- even if we are not in a circumstance where we could contain it," she said.

Schuchat added that steps are already being taken to devise a vaccine against this strain of swine flu, although the process takes time. "We are taking the initial steps in terms of preparing the seed virus to hand off to the industry partners, to produce large quantities. But you know it takes months to produce a vaccine," she said.