Asia on alert after flu threat spreads

April 26, 2009

Asian health officials went on alert Sunday as a flu strain that has killed dozens of people in Mexico appeared to have spread to New Zealand, underscoring warnings of a potential pandemic.

Governments across the region, which has in recent years been at the forefront of the SARS and epidemics, stepped up checks at airports and urged the public to be on guard for symptoms of the new multi-strain flu.

Ten New Zealand students who recently travelled to Mexico are "likely" to have contracted swine fever, Minister Tony Ryall said Sunday -- the first suspected cases in the region of more than three billion people.

They were among a group of three teachers and 22 students from Auckland who returned home on Saturday. Thirteen students and one teacher had displayed flu-like symptoms and were quarantined in their homes while undergoing tests.

"Ministry of Health officials advise me there is no guarantee these students have , but they consider it likely," Ryall said.

Samples from the students, who already tested positive for influenza A, were being sent to a World Health Organisation (WHO) laboratory in Melbourne, Australia to determine whether they had , Ryall said.

Mexican officials said the death toll from the new strain had probably risen to 81, while 10 people were believed infected in the United States and there were two possible cases in France.

The WHO warned Saturday that the virus had the potential to become a pandemic, labelling the current outbreak "a public health emergency of international concern."

In Japan, airports tightened checks on passengers arriving from Mexico, with quarantine officials giving out face masks and using thermography imaging cameras to screen passengers for signs of fever.

Health officials handed out leaflets to those headed for Mexico and the United States, urging them to wear face masks and wash their hands regularly, while a health ministry hotline attracted some 400 calls.

Agriculture minister Shigeru Ishiba appealed for calm, saying that the drug Tamiflu "is very effective. We have enough stockpiles in Japan."

South Korea followed suit, ordering all passengers on flights from virus-hit nations to pass through a strengthened quarantine check with a test kit at the airports.

Authorities also put Mexican and US pork in quarantine to check for the disease.

Australia urged people who had recently returned from Mexico and had developed flu-like symptoms to seek medical advice.

China and Hong Kong bore the brunt of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 that killed nearly 800 people, most of them in Asia, bringing air travel here to a near-standstill and battering the region's economies.

The same year, the H5N1 strain of re-appeared in Asia.

It has since killed 257 people, according to the World Health Organisation, and officials have long warned that the virus could become a global pandemic if it mutates into a form that is easily transmissible between humans.

The Chinese health ministry said it was "paying close attention" to the situation, studying inspection and quarantine measures to guard against the spread of the latest .

In Hong Kong, health officials said checks at border crossings had been stepped up and that airlines had been asked to broadcast messages on all flights coming direct from affected areas.

Indonesia, which has recorded the most deaths from bird flu of any country, said it was checking that thermoscanners were working at all ports and airports.

Thailand's Public Health Minister, Witthaya Kaewparadai, said authorities were "monitoring the epidemic closely" and advised people travelling to Mexico and the United States to take advice from the ministry.

Highlighting the potential role of international air travel in spreading the virus, a British Airways cabin crew staff member was being treated in a London hospital with flu-like symptoms after arriving on a flight from Mexico City.

(c) 2009 AFP

Explore further: Bird flu kills Cambodian girl

Related Stories

Hong Kong bird tests positive for H5N1

March 6, 2009

Hong Kong authorities said Friday that a dead chicken found in the southern Chinese territory had tested positive for the deadly H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus.

Mexico City closes museums to stop flu outbreak

April 24, 2009

(AP) -- Mexico's federal government has closed museums, libraries, and state-run theaters as well as schools in its overcrowded capital to stop a swine flu outbreak authorities say may have killed as many as 60 people.

Mexico on edge as reports of swine flu cases climb

April 26, 2009

(AP) -- A new strain of swine flu has this metropolis of 20 million people increasingly fearful as suspected flu deaths grow, and world health officials warn that Mexico City could be at the epicenter of a global epidemic.

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Cow embryos reveal new type of chromosome chimera

May 27, 2016

I've often wondered what happens between the time an egg is fertilized and the time the ball of cells that it becomes nestles into the uterine lining. It's a period that we know very little about, a black box of developmental ...

Shaving time to test antidotes for nerve agents

February 29, 2016

Imagine you wanted to know how much energy it took to bike up a mountain, but couldn't finish the ride to the peak yourself. So, to get the total energy required, you and a team of friends strap energy meters to your bikes ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.