With global anxiety spreading even faster than the new swine flu — and a vaccine still months away — health authorities are struggling to reduce the impact of an outbreak that can't be contained by simply shutting borders.
The world has no vaccine to prevent infection but U.S. health officials aim to have a key ingredient for one ready in early May, the big step that vaccine manufacturers are awaiting. But even if the World Health Organization ordered up emergency vaccine supplies — and that decision hasn't been made yet — it would take at least two more months to produce the initial shots needed for human safety testing.
"We're working together at 100 miles an hour to get material that will be useful," Dr Jesse Goodman, who oversees the Food and Drug Administration's swine flu work, told The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, health authorities are preparing for the worst. "I fully expect we will see deaths from this infection," said Dr Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The U.S. is shipping to states not only enough anti-flu medication for 11 million people, but also masks, hospital supplies and flu test kits. President Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.5 billion in emergency funds to help build more drug stockpiles and monitor future cases, as well as help international efforts to avoid a full-fledged pandemic.
"It's a very serious possibility, but it is still too early to say that this is inevitable," the WHO's flu chief, Dr Keiji Fukuda, told a telephone news conference.
Cuba and Argentina banned flights to Mexico, where swine flu is suspected of killing more than 150 people and sickening well over 2,000. In a bit of good news, Mexico's health secretary, Jose Cordova, late Tuesday called the death toll there "more or less stable."
Mexico City, one of the world's largest cities, has taken drastic steps to curb the virus' spread, starting with shutting down schools and on Tuesday expanding closures to gyms and swimming pools and even telling restaurants to limit service to takeout. People who venture out tend to wear masks in hopes of protection.
The number of confirmed swine flu cases in the United States rose to 66 in six states, with 45 in New York, 11 in California, six in Texas, two in Kansas and one each in Indiana and Ohio, but cities and states suspected more. In New York, the city's health commissioner said "many hundreds" of schoolchildren were ill at a school where some students had confirmed cases.
New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Britain, Germany, Spain and Canada have also reported cases.
But only in Mexico so far are there confirmed deaths, and scientists remain baffled as to why.
The WHO argues against closing borders to stem the spread, and the U.S. — although checking arriving travelers for the ill who may need care — agrees it's too late for that tactic.
"Sealing a border as an approach to containment is something that has been discussed and it was our planning assumption should an outbreak of a new strain of influenza occur overseas. We had plans for trying to swoop in and knockout or quench an outbreak if it were occurring far from our borders. That's not the case here," Besser told a telephone briefing of Nevada-based health providers and reporters. "The idea of trying to limit the spread to Mexico is not realistic or at all possible."
"Border controls do not work. Travel restrictions do not work," WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said in Geneva, recalling the SARS epidemic earlier in the decade that killed 774 people, mostly in Asia, and slowed the global economy.
Authorities sought to keep the crisis in context: Flu deaths are common around the world. In the U.S. alone, the CDC says about 36,000 people a year die of flu-related causes. Still, the CDC calls the new strain a combination of pig, bird and human viruses for which people may have limited natural immunity.
Hence the need for a vaccine. Using samples of the flu taken from people who fell ill in Mexico and the U.S., scientists are engineering a strain that could trigger the immune system without causing illness. The hope is to get that ingredient — called a "reference strain" in vaccine jargon — to manufacturers around the second week of May, so they can begin their own laborious production work, said CDC's Dr Ruben Donis, who is leading that effort.
Vaccine manufacturers are just beginning production for next winter's regular influenza vaccine, which protects against three human flu strains. The WHO wants them to stay with that course for now — it won't call for mass production of a swine flu vaccine unless the outbreak worsens globally. But sometimes new flu strains pop up briefly at the end of one flu season and go away only to re-emerge the next fall, and at the very least there should be a vaccine in time for next winter's flu season, Dr Anthony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health's infectious diseases chief, said Tuesday.
"Right now it's moving very rapidly," he said of the vaccine development.© Wire reports