Governments are racing to find and contain pockets of swine flu around the globe, seeking to stem both the threat of a pandemic and public panic."We're preparing in an environment where we really don't know ultimately what the size or seriousness of this outbreak is going to be," U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday.
In Mexico, the outbreak's epicenter, soldiers handed out 6 million face masks to help stop the spread of the novel virus that is suspected in up to 103 deaths. Most other countries are reporting only mild cases so far, with most of the sick already recovering. Cases have been confirmed in Canadasixand the U.S.20.
Spain reported its first confirmed swine flu case on Monday and said another 17 people were suspected of having the disease. The European Union health commissioner advised Europeans to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico and the United States. Also, three New Zealanders recently returned from Mexico are suspected of having it.
World Health Organization spokesman Peter Cordingley said the new virus was spreading quickly in Mexico and the southern United States, raising fears of a global pandemic.
"These are early days. It's quite clear that there is a potential for this virus to become a pandemic and threaten globally," Cordingley, WHO's spokesman for the Western Pacific, told AP Television News.
"But we honestly don't know," he added. "We don't know enough yet about how this virus operates. More work needs to be done."
The U.S. declared the health emergency amid confusion about whether new numbers really mean ongoing infectionsor just that health officials had missed something simmering for weeks or months. But the move allows the government to ship roughly 12 million doses of flu-fighting medications from a federal stockpile to states in case they eventually need them.
President Barack Obama is set to address the health crisis Monday in remarks to a meeting of the nation's top scientists. His administration sought on Sunday to strike a balance, informing Americans without panicking them.
"We do think this will continue to spread but we are taking aggressive actions to minimize the impact on people's health," said Richard Besser, M.D., acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The World Bank said it would send Mexico $25 million in loans for immediate aid and $180 million in long-term assistance to address the outbreak, plus advice on how other nations have dealt with similar crises. Mexico officials say the flu strain may have sickened 1,614 people since April 13 but laboratory testing to confirm that and how many truly died from itat least 22 so far out of the 103 suspected deathsis taking time.