Asia on alert over Mexico swine flu outbreak (Second Lead)

April 27th, 2009 - 2:28 pm ICT by IANS  

Bangkok, April 27 (DPA) Countries across Asia and the Pacific put their health authorities on high alert Monday and stepped up measures to screen travellers as concerns grew over an outbreak of swine flu in Mexico, with the first possible cases reported from New Zealand.
The number of dead in Mexico’s flu epidemic rose to 103, Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos said late Sunday in a television interview without specifying how many among them had died of swine flu.

“It is 1,614 cases and 103 deaths,” Cordova Villalobos told the television channel Televisa.

Prior to these comments, Mexican authorities had said that 81 people had died of flu in the country, with 20 of those having been confirmed to have suffered from swine flu and the rest pending further testing.

New Zealand health authorities awaited confirmation Monday that a group of teenage students had contracted lethal swine flu from a study trip to Mexico.

Ten college students tested positive for influenza a day after their return home Saturday, and samples have been sent to a World Health Organisation laboratory for confirmation that they have H1N1 swine influenza.

Officials said it was “highly likely” that they do, and the students from Rangitoto College, Auckland, and their families were told to stay in their homes in quarantine until further notice.

In Sydney, Australia, five people who had checked into hospital after returning from North America are awaiting the results of their tests.

The captains of all passenger planes arriving in Australia from the Americas are now required to report on the health of their passengers. Anyone displaying flu-like symptoms will be seen by a quarantine officer, who will decide whether a medical examination is required.

Virologist Greg Tannock from Melbourne’s RMIT University warned that, with an effective vaccine against swine flu a year away, the outbreak could spread around the world.

“This is something that will play itself out over the next six months, especially in the southern hemisphere with the flu season coming along,” he told national broadcaster ABC.

Tannock said that swine flu was more likely to become a pandemic than severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) or bird flu because it seemed more able to be transmitted between humans.

Across Asia, authorities stepped up inspection procedures over the weekend, installing thermal scanners at airports and putting health officials on high alert, being mindful of previous health scares following outbreaks of bird flu and SARS.

Japan upgraded health inspections on travellers returning from Mexico Monday while pushing to develop vaccines to prevent an epidemic.

Prime Minister Taro Aso ordered his cabinet ministers at a crisis meeting to ensure public safety, and the Health Ministry vowed to begin developing vaccines against swine influenza.

At Narita Airport, quarantine doctors were arranged to board planes to conduct inspections, and travellers entering Japan would be provided with medical care if any possibility of infections are detected, Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said at a press conference.

China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine issued an emergency notice Saturday night, asking people entering China from virus-hit countries to report any flu-like symptoms and ordered border inspectors to check the temperatures of incoming passengers.

“Passengers flying in from Mexico and other swine flu-hit countries are being monitored closely,” the official said. Temperature monitors were installed at most Chinese airports during the SARS outbreak in 2003.

No cases have yet been reported in Hong Kong or mainland China but the region has in the past been the first to see disease outbreaks that have gone on to infect people worldwide.

All passengers arriving at Singapore’s main Changi airport are being screened for flu symptoms, with thermal scanners at the arrival halls measuring their temperature just before they undergo immigration checks, the Ministry of Health and the Civil Aviation Authority said in a joint statement.

Passengers with higher-than-normal temperature would undergo a more thorough medical assessment.

Although Singapore has so far not reported any incidence of the virus, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan said it was “better to play safe”.

“It does not mean that it’ll definitely become a pandemic. But it’s better to play safe and assume the worst, rather than hoping the worst will never come and when it does, it’s too late to respond,” the Straits Times newspaper quoted the minister as saying.

Singapore had learned from the SARS outbreak in 2003 that it’s “better to be proactive than behind the curve,” the minister added.

Similar measures were introduced at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International airport in Thailand, another country hard hit in the past by SARS and bird flu.

“At present, we have not found any cases of swine flu,” Thai Health Minister Vithaya Keowparadis told a press conference.

The Philippine’s Department of Health also stepped up surveillance measures, including screening of travellers from Mexico, the US and Canada, officials said.

In Malaysia, hospitals and medical doctors have been asked to report cases with symptoms of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia, said the Health Ministry director-general Mohamad Ismail Merican.

“The ministry is also filtering those entering the country or Malaysians who have visited Mexico, California or Texas after April 17, for signs of being infected by the swine flu,” Mohamad Ismail was quoted as saying in a statement released by the official Bernama news agency.

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