WHO Cites Potential for Swine Flu Pandemic

Nuns in Mexico City's Zocalo plaza wear surgical masks to try to guard against infection. Many people stayed inside.
Nuns in Mexico City's Zocalo plaza wear surgical masks to try to guard against infection. Many people stayed inside. (By Gregory Bull -- Associated Press)
By Joshua Partlow and Rob Stein
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 26, 2009

MEXICO CITY, April 25 -- The World Health Organization rushed to convene an emergency meeting Saturday to develop a response to the "pandemic potential" of a new swine flu virus that has sparked a deadly outbreak in Mexico and spread to disparate parts of the United States.

Health officials reported that at least eight students at a private high school in New York City had "probable" swine flu. They also confirmed three new cases -- two in Kansas and one in California -- bringing the total number of confirmed U.S. cases to 11. The president of Mexico, where the outbreak has killed as many as 81 people, issued an order granting his government broad powers to isolate patients and question travelers.

"This is a serious moment for the nation," President Felipe Calderón said Saturday. "And we are confronting it with seriousness, with all the pertinent measures."

The director general of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, said the "situation is evolving quickly."

"We do not yet have a complete picture of the epidemiology or the risk, including possible spread beyond the currently affected areas," said Chan, who cut short a trip to the United States so she could rush back to the WHO's headquarters in Geneva to convene an emergency meeting of expert advisers to formulate a response to the virus. It is the first time the committee has been called upon since it was created two years ago to help handle disease outbreaks after the SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, epidemic.

"In the assessment of the WHO, this is a serious situation that must be watched very carefully," she said. "It has pandemic potential."

The virus, for which there is no vaccine for humans, has nearly brought Mexico City to a halt. Normally congested downtown streets in this city of 20 million were almost empty Saturday, and of the few people who ventured outside, many said they did so only out of necessity. Soldiers posted at subway stations handed out face masks to passersby from the back of armored vehicles. Some pedestrians covered their mouths and noses with scarves and rags.

"We can't escape the air," said Antonio Gonzáles, 56, who wore a surgical mask outside a public hospital. "If it was something in the food, we'd have a chance."

The Mexican government reported more than 1,300 suspected cases of the virus, which mixes animal and human strains of flu. Bars and nightclubs, schools, gallery openings and sporting events were cancelled until further notice. Authorities advised people to wash their hands regularly and avoid the customary greeting of kissing on the cheek. The government issued a decree giving the Health Ministry power to enter people's homes, close public events, isolate patients, and inspect travelers and their baggage.

The Associated Press reported that 24 new cases of the flu emerged Saturday in Mexico.

Worry and uncertainty seemed contagious. Many people had heard inconsistent reports on how many people were sick or dead, how the flu would manifest itself and which areas, if any, were safe.

"The people are disoriented. I think the government doesn't know what they are confronting," said Gonzalo Sariñana, 40, a university official from the northern city of Monterrey who was in Mexico City. "We are just guarding ourselves, waiting to hear what the government tells us to do."

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