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Swine flu tidbits from around the world

November 2, 2009 |  1:42 pm

PigAs of last week, more than 440,000 laboratory-confirmed cases of pandemic H1N1 influenza and more than 5,700 deaths had been reported to the World Health Organization. Because the WHO told countries to stop counting individual cases of swine flu at the beginning of summer--a reflection of the cost of confirmation and limited laboratory facilities--those numbers are likely to be considerable underestimates, the agency said.

Although the pandemic has waned in the Southern Hemisphere, it is blooming in the north. Mexico has reported more confirmed cases so far this fall than it did in the spring outbreak, when it was one of the hardest hit countries. Canada and the United States are being hit hard, as are many countries in Europe, including Iceland, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands. In Japan, influenza activity has increased sharply, about 10 weeks ahead of the normal start of the winter flu season, and most other countries are reporting activity.

Some vignettes from around the world:

- CUBA U.S. President Obama's easing of travel restrictions to the island nation earlier this year means that the country will see more cases of swine flu brought in by visitors, Fidel Castro said over the weekend. He stopped short, however, of attributing such an ulterior motive to the easing of travel. But he said it will be more difficult to treat patients there because of trade embargoes that have limited medical supplies.  Cuba has so far reported seven deaths and 793 confirmed cases. The country hopes to begin receiving doses of the vaccine from the WHO later this month.

U.S. officials set off a mild uproar last week when they said that terrorists and others detained at the Guantanamo Bay facility would be at a high priority for receiving the swine flu vaccine because the crowded conditions are conducive to an outbreak sweeping through the inmates. Critics charged that it is unconscionable to give the vaccine to enemies of the country while there is a shortage for Americans, but International Red Cross officials said that the U.S. has a duty to provide adequate healthcare for the detainees. Since there are only about 215 detainees there now, the whole argument seems rather silly. The American jailers will receive the vaccine because the military is a priority group for which vaccination is mandatory.

- EGYPTEgyptian authorities quarantined 40 British schoolchildren, some as young as 4, when they stepped off a plane at Sharm al-Sheikh International Airport last week on a school holiday. The incoming passengers were scanned by hidden infrared imaging devices and those with temperatures even slightly above normal were placed into quarantine for a minimum of five days. One British family said they were forced to share a urine-stained bed in a makeshift hospital they termed a  "hell hole" with 30 other families.

- CHINA China reported its seventh death from swine flu last week and said there have been 44,981 cases on the mainland since the outbreak began. The country has moved aggressively to vaccinate vulnerable groups, including students and Muslims participating in the hajj to Saudi Arabia. The country manufactures its own swine flu vaccine.

- AFGHANISTAN Afghanistan declared a health emergency today and ordered schools closed for three weeks in an effort to prevent spread of the virus. Health officials also advised against gatherings, such as weddings, in enclosed spaces. Nearly 350 cases have been detected among foreigners and Afghans and hundreds more are suspected, the health ministry said.

- UKRAINEUkrainian officials are in an uproar about swine flu, closing schools, imposing travel restrictions and limiting public gatherings, but critics say the maneuverings are attempts to make political inroads before the upcoming presidential election in January. The WHO said today that the outbreak is no more severe in the Ukraine than elsewhere. The health ministry reported today that 67 people have died of the flu so far. At the government's request, the WHO has sent a team to the country to help manage the outbreak.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II