Switzerland and the Netherlands confirmed their first cases of swine flu today, hours after the World Health Organisation raised its global epidemic threat level to phase five – the second highest – in recognition of the growing number of countries affected by the virus.
There are now 12 countries that have reported cases of the H1N1 strain, six of them in Europe. Both the Dutch and Swiss cases – a child and 19-year-old student respectively – had recently returned from trips to Mexico. The Swiss student was mistakenly released from a hospital, after test results were misinterpreted, and then hastily readmitted. Switzerland has a further 29 “suspicious” cases.
Phase five indicates the disease is able to spread easily between humans and is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent. It can lead to governments bringing in measures to prevent its spread, including travel restrictions and trade limitations.
The next phase, six, is a full-blown pandemic, characterised by outbreaks in at least two regions of the world.
The increase in threat level comes after a 23-month-old Mexican child died in Texas, becoming the first person to die from swine flu outside the country of origin; while in Spain officials confirmed the first case of the disease in a person who had not travelled to Mexico.
The WHO raised the alert level from three to four on Monday, the first time it has ever intervened to increase its pandemic threat warning. It said countries should activate their pandemic plans and remain on high alert.