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Swine flu to hit world's poor harder: WHO

Spain also tried to stop the virus in its tracks by quaranting soldiers at a military school near Madrid after 11 of them fell ill with suspected cases of the virus.
IANS | By HT Correspondent, Geneva
UPDATED ON MAY 22, 2009 07:58 PM IST

Global health chiefs warned on Friday that swine flu could soon hit much harder in the world's poorest countries and its spread in Asia was in danger of accelerating with the change of season.

As scores more new cases were reported in countries ranging from the United States to Japan, the head of the UN's World Health Organisation said A(H1N1) was proving to be "subtle, sneaky virus."

The Philippines became the 42nd country to a report a case of A(H1N1) and Europe took stringent measures to stop the outbreak in its tracks, including the closure of high schools in Rome and quarantining of soldiers in Spain.

The WHO's latest figures put the overall number of infections worldwide at 11,168, including 86 deaths, an increase of 134 on the previous day's tally.

While the vast majority of cases have been in Mexico and the United States, the latest developments heightened the prospects the WHO could declare a fully-fledged pandemic after already having warned that one is imminent.

Officials have said they will raise the alert level from five to the maximum six only when it is clear there is sustained community transmission in a second region outside the Americas.

Speaking on the last day of the WHO's annual conference, the organisation's director general Margaret Chan said poor countries which had escaped the worst of the virus could yet find themselves in the eye of the storm.

"Countries especially in the developing world, where populations are most vulnerable, should prepare to see more than the present small number of severe cases," Chan said.

"The strength of a country's health system will make the biggest difference in sickness and survival during an influenza pandemic," she added.

Although Asia, home to more than half the world's population, has yet to experience any deaths from swine flu, the growing number of cases has evoked painful memories of the 2003 SARS virus which killed more than 800 people.
China -- which bore the brunt of SARS -- recorded its sixth case of swine flu on Friday.

The number of confirmed A(H1N1) infections in Japan rose to 307, but authorities there eased some of their measures aimed at controlling the spread of swine flu, saying the virus was not as virulent as feared.

"The new influenza has strong similarities to seasonal flu," Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe told reporters. Officials at the Manila-based WHO Western Pacific office meanwhile warned that as the southern hemisphere was about to enter its influenza season, the "factors that contribute toward the spread of (ordinary seasonal) influenza will also enable the spread of A(H1N1)."

The Australian government invoked sweeping powers which would allow for the closure of schools and public places by upping its pandemic threat level as the number of confirmed swine flu cases there reached 12.

A 10-year-old girl became the country's first case of human-to-human transmission after contracting the disease from a classmate who fell ill upon returning from a family holiday to the United States.

Two teenagers, one in Melbourne and another in Adelaide, were also diagnosed with the virus without having travelled overseas or come into contact with an identified case, prompting Canberra to escalate its pandemic management plan.

Spain also tried to stop the virus in its tracks by quaranting soldiers at a military school near Madrid after 11 of them fell ill with suspected cases of the virus.

And Italy's health ministry ordered two high schools in Rome closed after four students were found to have contracted the swine flu virus while on a recent trip to the United States.

The schools, the first to be closed in the country because of swine flu, will remain shut for a week. Deputy Health Minister Ferruccio Fazio said that all of the group of 400 students on the trip would be tested for the virus

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