Swine Flu Outbreak Widening in Europe

Germany on Wednesday (29 April) became the third EU country, after the UK and Spain, to confirm a mild case of "swine flu." But EU institution face uncertainty on stocks of anti-viral medication and cannot agree whether travellers should avoid going to Mexico.

The Stockholm-based European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) on Tuesday had said 12 other EU countries are looking at suspected cases, without naming the places involved. The European Commission named Denmark, Sweden, Greece, the Czech Republic and Italy. News reports indicate France and Poland are in the same boat. Suspected cases in Belgium and Ireland have proved negative.

Mild cases of the A/H1N1 bug have also been confirmed as far afield as the US, Canada, New Zealand and Israel. Mexico, where the outbreak began, has seen the only fatalities, with up to 159 deaths attributable to the disease.

The World Health Organisation has put its pandemic alert level on four out of six. But health experts are playing down popular fears that the current crisis resembles the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed 50 million people around the world.

"One shouldn't be looking at Mexico and saying that's the pattern that we will necessarily see [here]," the ECDC's Angus Nicoll said. "Instead we are looking at where there has been the best epidemiology done so far, the US and Canada, and then we expect it will be done in Europe. What we've seen in the US and Canada has been a series of infections, a little bit of person-to-person transmission, but then no extended transmission so far."

Mr. Nicoll also warned against false hopes, however. "Sometimes you get a second or third wave which is more vicious than the first...we may get a lull over the summer and then something coming back.

EU health commissioner Androulla Vassiliou has called a meeting with pharmaceutical companies on Wednesday to discuss production of anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza and the possibility of creating an A/H1N1 vaccine in the months to come.

Some member states built up stocks of anti-virals during the bird flu scare in 2005. But Ms. Vassiliou said EU health ministers meeting on Thursday are unlikely to share sensitive information on who has what.

"Member states like to keep that information for themselves," she explained.

The commissioner indicated that any EU solidarity measures may also be limited, after countries at a meeting in Angers, France last September declined to pool resources. "Member states did not want stock-piling at EU level," Ms. Vassiliou said.

The EU health ministers are on Thursday to give formal advice on travel to affected regions. But EU citizens are facing contradictory opinions for now.

"What we are recommending is that EU citizens should only travel to Mexico if it is unavoidable and absolutely necessary," the ECDC's Zsuzsanna Jakab said on Tuesday.

"At this juncture I don't see any point in restricting travelling," the EU commissioner said the same day.

The caution comes amid potential losses for travel companies, which are already suffering due to the financial downturn. Shares in British Airways and Intercontinental Hotels began to slide on Monday after the first flu reports.

The European Commission is also trying to debunk the common name "swine flu" in favour of the appellation "novel flu" in order to protect the pork industry. A/H1N1 contains viral strains found in pigs, birds and humans but cooked pork is safe to eat, the EU executive said.

"We are trying to avoid negative connotations for the consumption of pork," Ms. Vassiliou explained.

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