WASHINGTON: The Geneva-based World Health Organization on Wednesday raised its alert level for the fast-spreading swine flu to its next-to-highest notch, signaling a global pandemic could be imminent as the virus spread further and yielded its first death outside of Mexico.
"It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic," said WHO Director General Margaret Chan.
"We do not have all the answers right now but we will get them."
WHO's flu chief Keiji Fukuda said countries now need to ramp up their lab capacity to be able to quickly test patients suspected to have the flu, and improve disease surveillance.
"Probably the single most important thing is that the populations are informed," he added.
In Mexico, where the flu is believed to have originated, officials said Wednesday the disease is now confirmed or suspected in 159 deaths, and nearly 2,500 illnesses.
Canada agreed to assist with laboratory work and has already begun testing 200 specimens from patients in Mexico with severe respiratory illness.
A Mexican toddler who had traveled with his family to Texas became the first fatality outside of Mexico, and total American infections surged to nearly 100.
There were no other deaths confirmed from the flu. But health officials in the United States and around the world braced for them. Germany and Austria became the latest countries to report infections.
Germany reported four cases on Wednesday, Austria one. New Zealand's total rose to 14. Britain had earlier reported five cases, Spain had 10.
There were 19 cases in Canada and two in Israel.
Dr. Richard Besser, the acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in Atlanta there were 91 confirmed cases in ten states, with 51 in New York, 16 in Texas and 14 in California.
Two cases have been confirmed in Kansas, Massachusetts and Michigan, while single cases have been reported in Arizona, Indiana, Nevada and Ohio.
State officials in Maine said laboratory tests had confirmed three cases in that state, although those had not yet been included in the CDC count.
And the Pentagon said that a Marine in southern California had tested positive for the disease.
In Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was questioned closely by senators about whether the U.S. should close its border with Mexico, where the outbreak apparently began and the casualties have been the greatest.
She repeated the administration's position that questioning of people at borders and ports of entry was sufficient for now and said closing borders "has not been merited by the facts."
The WHO said the phase 5 alert means there is sustained human to human spread in at least two countries.
It also signals that efforts to produce a vaccine will be ramped up.
In a possible outbreak north of the Mexican border, the commandant of the Marine Corps said a Marine lieutenant in southern California might have the illness and 39 Marines were being confined on their California base until tests come back.
Marine General James Conway told a Pentagon briefing an initial test indicated the sick Marine - who was not identified - might have swine flu but his illness did not appear life-threatening.
President Barack Obama said he wanted to extend "my thoughts and prayers" to the family of a nearly two-year-old Mexican boy who died in Houston, the first confirmed U.S. fatality among more than five dozen infections.
Health officials in Texas said the child had traveled with his family from Mexico, to Brownsville on April 4 and was brought to Houston after becoming ill.
He died Monday night.
"This is obviously a serious situation," and "we are closely and continuously monitoring" it, Obama said of the spreading illness.
Laboratory testing shows the new virus is treatable by the anti-flu drugs Tamiflu and Relenza, and the first shipments from a federal stockpile arrived Wednesday in New York City and several other locations in the U.S..
The government was shipping to states enough medication to treat 11 million people as a precaution.
Meanwhile, Egypt's government ordered the slaughter of all pigs in the country as a precaution, though no swine flu cases have been reported there.
Egypt's overwhelmingly Muslim population does not eat pork, but farmers raise some 300,000-350,000 pigs for the Christian minority.
The disease is not spread by eating pork, and farmers were to be allowed to sell the meat from the slaughtered animals.
In fact, officials appeared to go out of their way on Wednesday to not call the strain "swine flu." Obama called the bug the "H1N1 virus."
"The disease is not a food-borne illness," Rear Adm. Anne Schuchat, CDC's interim science and public health deputy direct, told the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
She said the strain is particularly worrisome because "it's a virus that hasn't been around before. The general population doesn't have immunity from it."
People have various levels of protection against other more common types of flu because they are exposed to it over time, and that protection accumulates.
She suggested that some older people might have more resistance to this particular strain than younger people because its traits might resemble outbreaks of decades ago.
Obama said it is the recommendation of public health officials that authorities at schools with confirmed or suspected cases of swine flu "should strongly consider temporarily closing so that we can be as safe as possible."
He was underscoring advice that the CDC provided earlier to cities and states, and that some schools - most prominently in New York City - already have followed.
Obama said the federal government is "prepared to do whatever is necessary to control the impact of this virus."
He noted his request for $1.5 billion in emergency funding to ensure adequate supplies of vaccines.
CDC for days has said people with flulike symptoms should stay home - but now also is stressing that other family members should consider staying home or at least limiting how much they go out until they're sure they didn't catch it.
Besser, the acting CDC director, called it "an abundance of caution," but stressed that it's voluntary and that the government hasn't urged actual quarantine, which isn't really effective with flu.
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