Swine Flu Cases Spread in Asia, Americas

GENEVA ~ Mexico’s swine flu death toll rose by four as the virus continued to spread through Latin America and made inroads in Asia, with the number of Japanese infections topping 200 on Wednesday.

In the United States, a man who recently travelled to Mexico may have become the country’s 8th swine flu casualty when he died Tuesday after contracting the A(H1N1) virus, according to health officials and local media reports.

The number of people to have died of the virus in Mexico hit 74 while confirmed infections in the country, the epicentre of the outbreak, rose by almost 100 in 24 hours to 3,660, health authorities said.

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon urged people to remain vigilant against swine flu because previous pandemics had shown flu outbreaks could start mild and worsen.

“That is why the world must remain vigilant and alert to the warning signs,” Ban said as he addressed the World Health Organisation’s annual assembly in Geneva.

The outbreak spread to a third western prefecture in Japan and experts warned it may also have reached Tokyo, which with almost 36 million people is the world’s most populous urban area.

Face masks have become ubiquitous on buses, commuter trains and in shopping centres of affected areas in Japan where 228 people have been infected.

Many of the cases have been among school students, prompting authorities to close more than 4,400 schools, colleges and kindergartens for the rest of the week to slow the spread of the virus.

Elsewhere in Asia, Taiwan announced its first confirmed case, an Australian male who had arrived by plane from Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Australia itself reported two new cases, including a boy aged nine, raising its overall number of confirmed infections to three.

The boy had returned to Melbourne city with his family on a flight from Los Angeles on May 12, and began showing flu-like symptoms this week, Victoria state health officials said.

In Japan, the western commercial hub of Kobe remained the worst affected, announcing more than 20 new infections of the (A)H1N1 virus among roughly three dozen new cases confirmed in the country Wednesday morning.

The western prefecture of Shiga became the third locality to confirm an infection, with a man in his 20s, who returned from a weekend trip to Kobe, testing positive for the virus.

Japan’s first domestic cases of the virus were confirmed last weekend in Kobe and Osaka, where they spread quickly in and between two high schools that had met for a volleyball tournament.

The UN health agency said Tuesday that cases across the world had soared by more than 1,000 since the previous day with 9,830 infections now reported in 40 countries, including 79 deaths.

The Mexican health minister did, however, note that officials believe the A(H1N1) virus there is on the wane. Still, 12 confirmed cases in Colombia and another 10 in Chile suggested the virus was spreading across Latin America.

A 14-month-old Canadian child who arrived in Cuba from Toronto became the fourth case of swine flu on the island.

The WHO has so far resisted pressure to declare a full-fledged swine flu pandemic, but anxiety about the spread of the virus – especially in Asia and the Americas – is growing.

Ban has been in talks with the leaders of some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies on the development of a vaccine.

About 30 vaccine makers from 19 industrialised and developing countries were invited by the WHO to Tuesday’s discussions, which officials said focused on the cost of the vaccine and its availability in vulnerable poor countries.

Ban told the WHO’s assembly afterwards that partnerships with the private sector would be “absolutely vital.”

“Solidarity in the face of this particular outbreak must mean that all have access to drugs and vaccines,” he told the group’s 193 member states. “It means that virus samples and data are shared.”

The WHO has been weighing the risks of halting production of the seasonal flu virus to free up production capacity for a swine flu vaccine.

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