Swine flu confirmed in Britain

Swine flu has reached Britain it was disclosed last night, as officials confirmed that two people were being treated in a hospital isolation unit after contracting the disease on holiday in Mexico.

Cases have also been confirmed in Spain, Canada, and several states in the USA.

They were named in the Scottish press as honeymooners Iain and Dawn Askham, of Polmont, near Falkirk.

The World Health Organisation upgraded its pandemic alert level to 4 – two stages below the most serious threat – while the Foreign Office advised against all but essential travel to Mexico.

“British nationals resident in or visiting Mexico may wish to consider whether they should remain in Mexico at this time,” a statement on the Foreign Office website added.

It comes as WHO Assistant Director General Keiji Fukuda said it was “too late” to contain swine flu and countries should now focus on mitigating the effects of the virus.

Describing the significance of the level four threat, Mr Fukuda said: “What this can really be interpreted as is a significant step towards pandemic influenza. But also, it is a phase that says we are not there yet.”

It is believed twenty two other people who have been in close contact with the Scottish couple since their return who are receiving anti-viral drugs as a precaution. Seven of them are showing mild symptoms of influenza.

The seven with symptoms have been told to stay at home and will be tested to see if they have swine flu.

Fears were growing that the virus could cause a flu pandemic as a series of countries confirmed cases.

Officials in Mexico – the centre of the outbreak – said there were 1,455 probable cases and 149 confirmed deaths.

Cases have also been confirmed in Spain, Canada, and several states in the USA. More are suspected in New Zealand, Israel and Colombia. Four people in the Irish Republic were being tested for the virus.

The two British patients, from the Falkirk area of Scotland, returned from holiday last Tuesday and on Saturday developed symptoms and contacted doctors.

They are being kept in isolation at a hospital in Airdrie. They are being treated with anti-viral drugs and are said to be ‘‘recovering well’’.

Senior civil servants met in an emergency session in Whitehall to discuss the threat posed by the disease.

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Health Minister, said every precaution was being taken to prevent further spread of the virus.

She said: “The seven displaying, and I stress, very mild symptoms will now be given anti-virals as treatment. The 22 that are not symptomatic will be given very extensive advice about minimising the spread.

“The focus is on the immediate contacts. Effectively, what we are trying to do is put a ring around this. We are trying to contain this as effectively as we can.”

Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, had earlier said that it was “inevitable” that the infection would reach Britain. “Hopefully, if we identify those early and treat people and their contacts, we might be able to reduce the spread,” he said.

Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, told MPs there had been 25 suspected cases so far in Britain. Eight of them had subsequently tested negative for the disease.

A Canadian woman was taken to hospital in Manchester showing symptoms of flu, but officials said it was highly unlikely she had swine flu.

Mr Johnson added that Britain was – with France – one of the two best-prepared countries in the world to deal with a potential flu pandemic.

The Government had imposed “enhanced” port health checks in an attempt to identify passengers arriving in Britain with symptoms of the illness, he said, and measures were in place to allow the swift nationwide distribution of the drug Tamiflu, which can reduce the severity and length of flu illnesses.

In the Government’s pandemic plan the worst case scenario suggests that if half the population contracted pandemic flu there could be around 709,000 deaths.

Schools, sports events and concerts could be shut down to limit the spread of the illness. Doctors who come into contact with suspected cases should wear face masks, gloves and aprons, under protocols issued by the Health Protection Agency.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said the disease has ‘‘pandemic potential’’ and work has already begun on a vaccine against the potentially lethal virus – a variation of H1N1 swine flu – although this is likely to take months before it is ready for use.

Mr Johnson said: “Everywhere outside Mexico the symptoms have been mild and all the victims have made a full recovery.”

People who suspect they may have been infected should stay at home and seek medical advice over the telephone, he added.

The WHO increased the pandemic alert level from level three, where experts have identified little or no human to human transmission to level four indicating that it was spreading much more easily between people across large areas. A pandemic is declared at level six.

Since the alerts were introduced in 2005 it has never been higher than level three.

The Department of Health pandemic plan says that a likely scenario during a pandemic is that businesses should expect repeated waves of one in four employees being off work.

Stephen Alambritis, of the Federation of Small Businesses, said that this could be disastrous during a recession.


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