The European Union’s top health official today urged Europeans to postpone any nonessential travel to the U.S. and Mexico. With more than 1,600 cases and 103 deaths in Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak, and with confirmed cases in the U.S. doubling to 40, the World Health Organization worries of pandemic potential while economists worry of additional blows to the already suffering world economy.
According to the AP, EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou only makes recommendations to the 27 member countries, leaving the ultimate travel advisory decisions to their respective foreign ministries. Regardless, the commission’s director-general for health and consumer protection, Robert Madelin, has stressed the need for a unified EU response, BBC reports.
“If we do not co-ordinate, individual regions and countries take measures which are inconsistent and create huge economic and personal costs,” he told a news conference in Brussels. “A combined approach is definitely the best response.” Mr Madelin said the EU was “putting in place plans agreed in the last five years, ensuring that the level of risk management is appropriate to the risk – using our ‘war-games’ experiences”.
EU health ministers will convene an emergency meeting on Thursday to further discuss the outbreak.
The AP article continues to quote Dr. Richard Besser, acting head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta: “At this point I would not put a travel restriction or recommendation against coming to the United States.” Besser believes the EU recommendation to be unwarranted and premature.
Washington officials have been attempting to qualm international fears, AP notes: “Health officials in Washington were quick to point out Sunday that none of the 20 cases identified in the U.S. so far has been fatal; all but one of the victims has recovered without needing to be hospitalized.” Furthermore,
Washington officials Sunday did their best not to overstate the situation and emphasized that their response wasn’t out of the ordinary. “I wish we could call it declaration of emergency preparedness, because that’s really what it is in this context,” said Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. “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.”
It was not until this morning that the U.S. issued an advisory about travel to Mexico.
It seems, however, that many EU nations are not taking any chances. With the first European case of the flu now confirmed in Spain and investigations underway in Brazil, Israel, Australia and New Zealand, the AP reports that a top German holiday tour operator has suspended its charter flights to Mexico City.
Governments in Asia are, understandably, taking even more precautions. The AP continues to report “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.”
Concern is understandable, due to the fearsome warnings emerging from The WHO. The BBC: “The WHO has said the swine flu virus could be capable of mutating into a more dangerous strain, but officials say they need more information on the virus to determine the threat it poses.”
David Rose of the London Times, for one, seems shaken:
Experts have been warning for years that another worldwide flu pandemic is inevitable. The latest outbreaks of “swine flu” are a stark reminder that a deadly virus could emerge in animals, birds or human beings almost anywhere. The H1 virus in Mexico appears to show signs of spreading quickly between humans through contact as brief as a handshake. As nearly 1.4 million people travelled between Britain and Central America last year, we can probably expect this strain to come to the UK.
Aside from the obvious health implications, there is some fear of what a pandemic could do to the world’s already sour economic conditions. The edge of the iceberg has already emerged, according to the AP: “World stock markets fell as investors worried that the deadly outbreak could go global and derail any global economic recovery. Airlines took the brunt of the selling.”
The Deutsche Welle adds: “A pandemic would deal a major blow to a world economy already suffering its worst recession in decades, and experts say it could cost trillions of dollars.”
While the Swine Flu outbreak has yet to reach pandemic status, experts seem unsure as to whether it is headed in that direction. The potential certainly exists, and the consequences do not look pretty.
Valerie Nichols is a web editor at the Atlantic Council.