Around the world:
Officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) have confirmed 15 swine-flu related deaths in Mexico, making it, by far, the hardest-hit country. Of the 589 reported cases around the globe, 343 are in Mexico, while the U.S. has 155 cases. A Mexican toddler in Texas is the country’s only swine flu-related death so far. Elsewhere, 51 cases have been confirmed in Canada; 13 in Spain; 10 in Britain; four each in Germany and New Zealand; two each in Israel and France; and one each in Switzerland, Austria, China, Denmark and the Netherlands.
In a bid to fight the spread of the virus, Mexico today began a five-day shutdown of all non-essential government offices and businesses. In a televised address, President Felipe Calderon told Mexicans, “There is no safer place than in your home to avoid being affected by the flu virus. I know many of you have had to suspend your activities and may have seen your earnings fall but it is worth it if we can look after the health of our loved ones and protect Mexico from this evil.”
In a teleconference on Friday, U.S. health officials reported the genetic sequences of the virus are remarkably similar from country to country, a finding that bodes well for the eventual development of a vaccine. Nancy Cox, the chief of the influenza division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said it would take months to develop an effective vaccine, but indicated the CDC has “already started [the] process” of creating a high-yield vaccine candidate. Cox also said her office does not “see the markers for virulence that were seen in the 1918 virus,” which is considered to have been the deadliest flu outbreak in history.
The World Health Organization also announced on Thursday that it would stop using the words “swine flu” and instead refer to the virus as H1N1 influenza A. The change is meant to avoid confusion about how the disease is transmitted and, more specifically, to curtail the fears that pork products might be behind the pandemic.
Meanwhile, in the U.K., a national hotline, designed to dole out prescriptions for flu medications to thousands of simultaneous callers during a flu pandemic, is not yet operational. British health officials, who’d promised the hotline would be up and running this month, now say they hope to have the hotline operational by the fall. In the meantime, the problems associated with the phone line are raising fears doctors won’t be able to get antiviral drugs to patients quickly enough to stave off a deadly pandemic.
The number of swine flu cases in Canada crept up to 51 on Friday, with the largest concentration occuring in British Columbia, where 15 cases have been confirmed. Nova Scotia has 14 confirmed cases, while the rest of the infections are in Ontario (12), Alberta (8), Quebec (1) and New Brunswick (1). All the cases so far have been described by health officials as “mild.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Saskatchewan on Friday, where he expressed confidence Canadians would not panic in the face of the flu pandemic. “I sense the public is listening very carefully to various advisories and warnings they are getting,” Harper said, “and responding appropriately and that’s what we encourage.”
Public Health Officer David Butler-Jones announced the federal government would expand its information and prevention campaign to include Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Ottawa is currently encouraging Canadians to visit fightflu.ca for information about the flu.