WHO official expects to raise flu alert to highest level


Although the pace of new H1N1 infections seemingly slowed Saturday -- with a total of 195 cases now reported in the United States and 793 worldwide, and a few even turning up in pigs -- a World Health Organization official said he thought that the agency’s infectious disease alert level ultimately would be raised to its highest point.

“At the present time, I would still propose that a pandemic is imminent because we are seeing the disease spread,” said Michael Ryan, the agency’s director of global alert and response, at a Geneva news conference. “We have to expect that Phase 6 will be reached; we have to hope that it is not.”

The level will be raised when the agency sees evidence of sustained person-to-person transmission of the virus outside North America. So far, he emphasized, that has not occurred, with the exception of a handful of cases.


On Monday, the agency raised the alert level to Phase 4 from the normal Phase 3, a sign that a pandemic was imminent or inevitable. The triggering event for the increase was the sustained transmission of the virus in two countries, the United States and Mexico.

That increase had little effect on industrialized countries, which already were making extensive preparations to combat an outbreak of the disease, unofficially known as swine flu. But it was viewed as a call to less-developed countries to step up their planning.

On Wednesday, the WHO raised the alert level to Phase 5.

Ryan said the WHO would send 72 developing countries 2.4 million courses of the antiviral agent Tamiflu from its emergency stockpile. The drug’s manufacturer, Roche, said that it would send an additional 3 million doses and that it was scaling up production of the drug.

The latest U.S. count includes six new cases in California, bringing the total to 24. The count also includes 12 new cases in New York, two in Florida, and one each in Connecticut, Missouri, Utah, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, the first cases in those states.

Ryan said that about one-third of U.S. cases resulted from people visiting Mexico. The rest contracted it through human-to-human transmission locally.

Worldwide, Italy confirmed its first H1N1 case in a man who recently returned from Mexico, and Ireland confirmed its first case. Costa Rica also confirmed a case, the first in the Caribbean outside Mexico.


Canadian officials also said Saturday that they had confirmed the presence of the H1N1 virus in a small herd of pigs in Alberta and that the swine had been quarantined. It marked the first time the new virus has been discovered in animals, even though swine flu viruses are common.

Officials believe that the pigs were infected by a Canadian farmworker who visited Mexico and fell ill after returning home. Both farmer and pigs were said to be recovering.

In Mexico, Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said the outbreak there might not be as serious as first thought. Out of more than 1,000 suspect cases so far, he said, 473 cases were confirmed to be H1N1.

Emergency rooms at Mexican hospitals also have reported fewer patients in recent days. Cordova said he was not declaring the scare over. “It would still be imprudent to say that we’re past the worst of it, but I do think . . . we are in a stage of stabilization,” he added.

“Is it stabilizing or not? I think it is too early to say,” said Dr. Steve Waterman of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaking to reporters in Mexico City. “But I think we are getting systems in place where we are going to be able to get a handle on this soon.”

Some Mexico City residents, tired of being shut inside their homes after more than a week, ventured outside on Saturday.


At a popular park in the Condesa neighborhood, about 30 children romped in a sun-drenched playground that most weekends draws hundreds of visitors. A few wore face masks, but the scene looked almost normal after a week in which schools were closed and children virtually disappeared from public view.

Jorge Garcia, 65, a retired accountant, accompanied his two granddaughters to the park after days of staying in. “I couldn’t take being in the house with them anymore,” he said.

Most public places, including the vast Chapultepec park, remained closed, however.

Despite the good news from Mexico, China said Saturday that it was suspending flights from Mexico to Shanghai after the discovery of H1N1 in a Mexican tourist in Hong Kong. Singapore announced a one-week quarantine for anyone arriving from Mexico.

An estimated 200 guests and 100 staffers were quarantined in the Hong Kong hotel where the Mexican tourist was staying, and all are receiving Tamiflu. The aggressive reaction by health authorities, experts said, stems from that country’s experiences in fighting the SARS outbreak in 2003.

Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa objected to China’s actions, charging that “Mexican citizens showing no signs at all of being ill have been isolated under unacceptable conditions.”

She said the Foreign Ministry “recommends avoiding traveling to China until these measures are corrected.”


.President Obama on Saturday spoke with Mexican President Felipe Calderon to share information about efforts to contain the virus.

Conservative commentators in the U.S. have been using the H1N1 outbreak as an opportunity to attack illegal immigration, charging that poor Mexicans will flock to the U.S. for treatment. They cite the case of the Mexican toddler who died of swine flu Monday in a Houston hospital.

But the Associated Press on Saturday identified the 21-month-old as Miguel Tejada Vazquez, the scion of a wealthy family. Miguel’s grandfather is Mario Vazquez Rana, 76, who heads Mexico’s Olympic Committee and is on the International Olympic Committee’s 15-member board.


Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood in Mexico City contributed to this report.