WASHINGTON — The world’s governments raced Sunday to avoid both a pandemic and global hysteria as more possible swine flu cases surfaced from Canada to New Zealand and the United States declared a public health emergency.
“It’s not a time to panic,” the White House said.
Late Sunday, Mexico’s health secretary raised the number of suspected deaths in that country to 103 and the number of cases to more than 1,600.
Mexico, the outbreak’s epicenter, canceled some church services and closed markets, restaurants and theaters. A televised variety show filled its seats with cardboard cutouts. Few people ventured onto the streets, and some wore face masks.
Canada confirmed cases in six people, including students who, like some New York spring-breakers, got mildly ill in Mexico. Countries across Asia promised to quarantine feverish travelers returning from flu-affected areas.
The United States declared the health emergency so it could ship roughly 12 million doses of flu-fighting medications from a federal stockpile to states in case they need them, although, with 20 confirmed cases of people recovering easily, they don’t appear to for now.
Make no mistake: There is no global pandemic. It’s not clear how many people truly have this particular strain, or why all countries but Mexico are seeing mild disease. Nor is it clear if the new virus spreads easily, one milestone that distinguishes a bad flu from a global crisis. But waiting to take protective steps until after a pandemic is declared would be too late.
“We do think this will continue to spread, but we are taking aggressive actions to minimize the impact on people’s health,” said Dr. Richard Besser, acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
President Barack Obama’s administration sought to look both calm and in command, striking a balance between informing Americans without panicking them. Obama was playing golf while U.S. officials used a White House news conference to compare the emergency declaration with preparing for a hurricane.
“Really, that’s what we’re doing right now. 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,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Earlier, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the outbreak was serious, but that the public should know “it’s not a time to panic.” He told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Obama was getting updates “every few hours.”
In Mexico, soldiers handed out 6 million surgical-style masks to deal with a flu strain that officials say may have sickened 1,614 people since April 13. Special lab tests to confirm how many died from it — 22 have been confirmed so far — are taking time.
The World Bank said it would send Mexico $25 million in loans for immediate aid and $180 million in long-term assistance to address the outbreak.
The World Health Organization and the United States were following a playbook of precautions developed over five years to prepare for super-flu. The WHO on Saturday asked all countries to step up detection of this strain of A/H1N1 swine flu and will reconsider on Tuesday whether to raise the pandemic threat level, in turn triggering additional actions.
A potential pandemic virus is defined as, among other things, a novel strain that’s not easily treated. This new strain can be treated with Tamiflu and Relenza, but not with two older flu drugs. Also, the WHO wants to know if it’s easily spread from one person to another.
“Right now we have cases occurring in a couple of different countries and in multiple locations, but we also know that in the modern world that cases can simply move around from single locations and not really become established,” cautioned WHO flu chief Dr. Keiji Fukuda.
There is no vaccine against swine flu, but the CDC has taken the initial step necessary for producing one: creating a seed stock of the virus. Last winter’s flu shot offers no cross-protection to the new virus, although it’s possible that older people exposed to various Type A flu strains in the past may have some immunity, CDC officials said Sunday.
Worldwide, attention focused sharply on travelers.
Six Canadian cases in Nova Scotia and British Columbia had links to people who had traveled to Mexico, and all are the same swine flu strain. The six have recovered, said Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada’s chief public health officer.
In New Zealand, Health Minister Tony Ryall said three students among a group of 15 that had just come back from a class trip to Mexico had mild flu and were being tested for swine flu. On Sunday, officials said 10 students from a separate group that also were in Mexico “likely” have swine flu. French Health Ministry officials investigated four possible cases but three were found to be negative. In Brazil, a hospital said a patient who arrived from Mexico had some swine flu symptoms.
A New York City school where eight cases were confirmed will be closed today and Tuesday, and 14 schools in Texas, including a high school where two cases were confirmed, will be closed for at least the next week.
China, Russia, Taiwan and Bolivia began planning to quarantine travelers arriving from flu-affected areas if they have symptoms. Italy, Poland and Venezuela advised citizens to postpone travel to parts of Mexico and the United States.
Other countries were increasing their screening of pigs and pork imports from the Americas or banning them outright despite official reassurances that it was safe to eat thoroughly cooked pork.
Several airlines are waiving penalties for changing reservations for anyone traveling to, from or through Mexico, but they have not canceled flights.
Officials along the U.S.-Mexico border were asking health care providers to take respiratory samples from patients who appear to have the flu. Travelers were being asked if they visited flu-stricken areas.
The United States hasn’t advised against travel to Mexico but urges precautions such as frequent hand-washing while there and has begun questioning arriving travelers about flu symptoms.