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Australia set to raise swine flu alert level

world Updated: Jun 14, 2009 17:04 IST
AFP
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Australia said on Sunday it was set to raise its swine flu alert level as the number of victims hit by the pandemic continued to mount while Thailand urged calm after a sharp increase in cases.

Australian Health Minister Nicola Roxon said that, with the national tally nearing 1,500 cases, the whole country would soon move to the "sustain" phase in line with hotspot state Victoria.

The "sustain" phase, Australia's second-highest, gives authorities the power to cancel sports events, close schools and restrict travel, although officials say extreme measures such as closing national borders are unlikely.

The World Health Organisation raised its global alert to a maximum six on Thursday, saying swine flu had reached pandemic status because of its geographical spread.

Swine flu has so far infected almost 30,000 people in 74 countries and claimed 145 lives since it was first detected in Mexico in April, according to the latest WHO figures released Friday.

A total of 1,458 cases of the A(H1N1) virus have been counted in Australia, the worst-hit Asia-Pacific country, with the fifth highest number of cases worldwide.

"As the numbers gradually increase in jurisdictions there will be steps over the coming days to move to a consistent alert level," Roxon said.

"It's inevitable that the disease will spread. That's the nature of this type of flu," she added.

Meanwhile, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva urged the country not to panic after swine flu cases suddenly soared and a cluster emerged in a key tourist hub.

Health authorities reported 150 confirmed cases of the virus Sunday -- almost 10 times the tally just three days earlier.

Officials last week said 21 of the new infections were found among nightclub workers in the coastal city of Pattaya, who were tested after two Taiwanese tourists said on returning home they had contracted the disease there.

"People should not panic. The death ratio for the new flu is probably lower than normal flu," Abhisit said in his weekly television programme.

He said the government was taking extra measures whenever cases were reported to stop the spread of the disease.

Health authorities in Canada announced Saturday that a fifth person had died of swine flu and reported 540 additional cases, bringing the country's total since the start of the outbreak to more than 3,500.

But while millions could catch the flu, governments and health experts around the world have sought to play down fears that the A(H1N1) virus could become a major killer.

Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis on Friday stole a march on competitors by announcing it had completed a first batch of its vaccine for pre-clinical trials.

A spokesman told AFP it hoped to have a vaccine in production by September or October.

Novartis said it hopes to start trials on patients in July and to gain a licence soon after. It said more than 30 governments had already asked for A(H1N1) virus "vaccine ingredients."

The US government gave Novartis 289 million dollars (205 million euros) to help develop a vaccine. It also placed an order with Sanofi-Pasteur of France which said it hopes to have doses ready for clinical trials in coming weeks.

British-controlled GlaxoSmithKline said it could produce a vaccine in four to six months and that it was ready to convert a donation of 50 million doses of vaccine against H5N1 bird flu for the WHO to swine flu doses.

The southern hemisphere is currently heading into winter and the height of its flu season. Northern hemisphere countries expect to see a swine flu surge when their winter starts later.

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