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Winnipeg, CDC lab find swine flu viruses in Mexican specimens

TORONTO -- Mexican authorities confirmed Friday they have found human infections with swine flu virus, a discovery that suggests the outbreak there is linked to person-to-person spread of swine flu in the southwestern United States.

TORONTO -- Mexican authorities confirmed Friday they have found human infections with swine flu virus, a discovery that suggests the outbreak there is linked to person-to-person spread of swine flu in the southwestern United States.

Canada's National Microbiology laboratory found 16 positive cases of swine flu out of a shipment of 51 clinical specimens sent from Mexico to Winnipeg for testing, sources say. Those specimens included lung biopsies and nasal swabs, among other types of specimens.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has also found positives among samples from Mexico tested in the CDC labs in Atlanta.

"We have tested 14 samples from Mexico and seven of those tested positive," Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC, told a news conference Friday.

He confirmed eight cases of swine flu infection in people in Southern California and Texas over the past few days. The latest case involves a child in the San Diego area who has recov-ered, Besser said.

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The previous seven cases ranged in age from nine to 54 years of age. All of those have re-covered as well; one needed hospitalization.

"Our concern has grown since yesterday," Besser said.

The World Health Organization also expressed serious concern, saying it has put on alert the expert panel that would advise it about whether to raise the global pandemic alert level. The WHO also activated its emergency operations centre on Friday.

A spokesperson said the WHO is also deliberating whether it should launch an effort to try to contain the spread of a virus that appears to have possible pandemic potential.

Modelling studies have suggested it might be possible to snuff out a pandemic in the early days and for several years now WHO experts have been drawing up and testing plans for a containment effort for an emerging pandemic.

"We can't say for sure that either a phase change or a rapid containment operation will happen. But both have been considered and are being considered," spokesman Gregory Hartl said from Geneva.

"I still don't think we have enough information to be able to say that this is a pandemic or not. Because there are questions over transmissibility, let's say, of the virus. And we need to know more about how easily transmitted the virus is."

Hartl said there have been no reports of infections in any other countries.

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The unusual influenza A H1N1 swine viruses were first reported earlier this week, when the CDC announced it had found two human cases of infection with this never-before-seen virus. Testing shows the virus is vulnerable to Tamiflu and Relenza, the two main drugs used to fight flu.

Though human H1N1 viruses have been circulating for decades, it is not clear how much protection previous infection with them would confer against a virus made up predomi-nantly of swine flu genes. The virus also has some bird genes and one human gene.

In Mexico, Secretary of Health Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos said in a television inter-view that there have been 45 deaths, but only 16 of those were directly related to the flu in question.

An estimated 943 people are ill, the television report said.

The majority of the cases are occurring in young, previously healthy adults in their mid 20s to mid 40s, reports suggest. Experts aren't certain if all of those people are sick with this virus or if other flu or respiratory viruses are also circulating and muddling the picture.

Schools were closed Friday in Mexico City, one of three areas of the country where cases have been reported.

Hartl said the WHO is sending staff to Mexico to help authorities there get a better handle on the scope of the problem.

"We're extremely concerned because we're looking at five different influenza events which may or may not be connected," he said, referring to California, Texas and three possi-bly linked outbreaks in Mexico.

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"But they are unusual events, either because of the time of the year that they happened and or because of the people that have been affected. This is a great concern to us and we have activated our strategic health operation centre which is a 24-hour around-the-clock command and control centre."

Canada and the United States have also launched their emergency control centres, signal-ling this is an event they want to track around the clock. Infectious diseases experts say it's too soon to predict whether the virus will take off and cause a pandemic. But they are heart-ened by the fact that for now, at least, the illnesses being reported are like seasonal flu and are not severe like human cases of H5N1 avian flu.

"What I'm feeling best about is that it does not seem to be a terrible illness. And if this is going to go, then it's going to be at least to some degree manageable," said Dr. Allison McGeer, of Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital. She noted reports from Mexico don't seem to suggest hospitals are being overwhelmed.

Dr. Michael Gardam, director of infectious diseases prevention and control at the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion, said the picture will be clearer in the next few days.

And Gardam warned against assuming that a pandemic must be severe. In fact, some pan-demics cause severe illness while others cause what seems like regular flu but cause many more infections than one would see in a standard flu season.

"We're going to be getting a lot more information over the next week. And it will start to become clearer and clearer who the high risk groups are," he said, noting Canadian health care systems and public health officials has been planning for a pandemic for years.

The world is currently at level 3 of the WHO's six-rung pandemic alert ladder, because of ongoing sporadic cases of human infection with the H5N1 avian flu virus. Phase 3 means there are occasional human cases with a novel flu virus.

WHO would need the advice of an expert panel to move up to Phase 4 or beyond. Phase 6 is a pandemic.

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