Swine flu: experts urge 'don't panic'

EAST Anglian experts urged the public to remain calm today despite confirmation of the first cases of the deadly new strain of swine flu in the UK.The first British cases of the flu, which has so far killed 149 people in Mexico, were diagnosed last night.

EAST Anglian experts urged the public to remain calm today despite confirmation of the first cases of the deadly new strain of swine flu in the UK.

The first British cases of the flu, which has so far killed 149 people in Mexico, were diagnosed last night. Scottish health secretary Nicola Sturgeon told a press conference in Edinburgh that two people had tested positive for the disease.

Both patients, at Monklands Hospital in Airdrie, Lanarkshire, were “recovering well”.

A further seven among the 22 who had been in contact with the two infected individuals have developed mild symptoms which have not been comfirmed as swine flu but are being “appropriately cared for”.

Ms Sturgeon added: “I would reiterate that the threat to the public remains low and that the precautionary actions we have taken over the last two days have been important in allowing us to respond appropriately and give us the best prospect of disrupting the spread of the virus.

“However, this is a developing situation which we continue to monitor very closely, in conjunction with our colleagues in other parts of the UK and the World Health Organisation.”

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It comes as officials took the unprecedented step of urging Britons to postpone non-essential travel to the United States yesterday as one of a number of measures to combat the spread of the illness, which has so far claimed the lives of more than 100 people in Mexico.

The European Union's health commissioner Andorra Vassiliou advised people to reassess their travel plans yesterday as Europe's first case was confirmed in Spain. Cases of the AH1N1 strain of flu had also been confirmed in the US and Canada.

Experts predicted more cases of swine flu would likely be diagnosed in this country. But they urged people in the region not to panic and insisted the situation was well planned for.

John Battersby, director of public health for NHS Norfolk, said: “I don't think there is any cause for panic, it is likely there will be cases in this country because of the nature of modern air travel.”

Brian Keeble, consultant in public health medicine at NHS Suffolk said they were working closely with the Health Protection Agency in the East of England to asses the situation.

He said: “At this point we would like to emphasise that general infection control practices and good hand hygiene can help to stop the spread of all viruses, including the human strain of swine influenza.

“This includes covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, using a tissue when possible, disposing of dirty tissues promptly and carefully, maintaining good basic hygiene for example washing hands frequently with soap and water to reduce the spread of the virus from your hands to face or to other people.”

Health secretary Alan Johnson confirmed that the UK has enough anti-viral medication to treat half the population in the event of a pandemic.

Mr Johnson said if the swine flu outbreak in Mexico spread to the UK the government would use its stockpile of anti-viral drugs to treat patients showing symptoms of the disease.

He acknowledged there was “trepidation and concern” across the world but insisted the UK was one of the “best prepared” countries to cope with a flu pandemic. Enhanced port health checks had been put in place to identify passengers arriving in the UK with symptoms of the illness.

Mr Johnson said: “There are three key messages I would like to stress at this stage.

“First, it is important to emphasise that in all cases outside Mexico the symptoms of this illness are mild and all patients have made a full recovery.

“Second, we can all take simple measures to prevent infection, in particular covering the nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing and washing hands regularly.

“Any one who develops flu-like symptoms should go home and contact NHS Direct or their GP by phone.

“Third, anyone who has recently travelled to the affected areas and is experiencing influenza-like illness should stay at home to limit contact with others and seek medical advice by phone.”

Children's secretary Ed Balls said schools have been given guidance on how to cope.

Mr Balls said: “I know that parents, teachers and children will be concerned by the reports over the weekend about the flu outbreak in Mexico.

“As a contingency measure we will today remind schools and children's centres of our existing detailed guidance on planning for a possible flu pandemic.

“But our clear advice is that they should continue to operate as normal, taking their usual precautions against the spread of seasonal flu outbreaks and viral infections.”

Swiss drug company Roche Holding AG also said the World Health Organisation (WHO) has enough of the anti-flu treatment Tamiflu stockpiled to treat up to 5 million people who come down with swine flu in addition to millions more treatments held ready by 85 to 90 governments.

John Ellis, head of emergency planning at Norfolk County Council, added: “We have well-rehearsed plans in place in Norfolk and will continue to work with our partners, notably the NHS, and would simply urge people to continue with basic hygiene such as washing hands and listen to the advice from the health experts.”

But alongside fears over health, there were also concerns about the economic impact of a possible pandemic during a global recession.

Shares in major airlines and holiday firms were already being hit yesterday with fears that pork producers might also struggle.

Among the holiday companies, Thomas Cook slumped 7pc, while Thomson Holidays owner TUI Travel shed 5pc.

Alongside airlines and travel agents, food firm Cranswick, which has just bought a Norfolk-based supplier of pork for Tesco and a number of other major retailers, shed more than 5pc in the FTSE 250.

But consumers were told there was no risk of catching swine flu from eating properly handled and prepared pork or other products derived from pigs.

The swine influenza virus is killed by cooking temperatures of 160�F/70�C, corresponding to the general guidance for the preparation of pork and other meat.

East Anglian pig industry commentator Ian Campbell said: “Although it is called swine flu, I've not seen any suggestions that there is any risk at the moment in working with pigs in this country or connected with pig meat.”