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New fear as Spain reports swine flu

SPAIN yesterday became the first nation outside North America to confirm a case of swine flu, and the European Union health commissioner urged Europeans to postpone nonessential travel to parts of the United States and Mexico due to the deadly flu.

The number of confirmed swine flu cases in the US had doubled to 40, the World Health Organization reported yesterday, saying it was "very concerned" about the disease's spread. The UN agency said it could decide within hours whether to raise its pandemic alert level.

Mexico's government is ordering schools nationwide to close as the suspected death toll from swine flu climbed to 149.

Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said only 20 of the deaths have been confirmed to be from swine flu and the government was awaiting tests results on the rest.

He said 1,995 people have been hospitalized with serious cases of pneumonia since the first case of swine flu was reported on April 13. The government does not yet know how many were swine flu.

Spain's case of swine flu - confirmed by WHO - involved a university student who fell ill after returning from Mexico.

Russia and China said visitors returning from flu-affected areas with fevers would be quarantined, while countries from New Zealand to Israel quickly instituted new security measures at airports and put sick travelers under observation.

World stock markets fell yesterday as investors worried that a deadly outbreak of swine flu in Mexico could derail any global economic recovery. Airlines took the brunt of the selling, as holiday tour operators in Germany and Japan suspended charter flights to Mexico City.

The European Union's health commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, urged Europeans to postpone nonessential travel to parts of the US or Mexico affected by swine flu, toning down earlier comments referring to all of North America.

"I meant a travel advisory, not a travel ban, for travel to Mexico City and those states in the United States where we have outbreaks" of swine flu, the commissioner said.

US President Barack Obama said yesterday the threat of spreading swine flu infections was cause for concern but "not a cause for alarm," as the US stepped up border monitoring.

WHO spokesman Peter Cordingley said the new virus was spreading quickly in Mexico and the US, 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.

If the WHO raises its pandemic alert level to 4 or 5, that signals that the swine flu virus is becoming increasingly adept at spreading between humans. Currently, the alert level is at 3, which means there is an animal virus that occasionally causes human cases but that doesn't spread well between people.

Meanwhile, New Zealand was testing 13 students, their parents and teachers who were showing flu-like symptoms after returning from Mexico.

Israel, France, Brazil and Sweden were also testing suspects.

Cordingley singled out plane travel as an easy way the virus could spread, noting that WHO estimates up to 500,000 people are aboard planes at any time.

Germany's largest holiday tour operator, the Hannover-based TUI, suspended all charter flights to Mexico City through May 4. Japan's largest tour agency, JTB Corp, suspended tours to Mexico at least through June 30.

China, Russia and Ukraine ban imports of pork and pork products from Mexico and three US states that have reported cases of swine flu, and other governments are increasing their screening of pork imports.

Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines dusted off thermal scanners used during the 2003 SARS crisis and were checking for signs of fever among passengers arriving at airports from North America.


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