The World Health Organization has raised its alert level for swine flu, warning a pandemic could be imminent.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan announced the heightened alert Wednesday in Geneva. She called on all countries to activate pandemic preparedness plans. The new WHO pandemic alert level -- Phase 5 -- is one step below a declaration of a pandemic, which is defined as an illness occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.
Swine flu is believed to have killed 159 people and sickened about 2,500 in Mexico, and the United States has confirmed its first death from nearly 100 cases of the virus.
Other countries with confirmed cases are Austria, Britain, Canada, Costa Rica, Germany, Israel, Spain and New Zealand. Australia, Colombia, France, Denmark and South Korea are among nations investigating suspected cases. U.S. health officials say the first victim of the virus in the U.S. was a 23-month-old boy in Texas, which sits on Mexico's northern border. State officials say the child was from Mexico and had traveled to the U.S. to visit family.
U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday the United States is doing all it can to control the outbreak. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says at least 91 people in 10 U.S. states have been infected. In addition to that figure, officials in Maine confirmed three new infections raising the total number of U.S. infected to 94 people in 11 states.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says the federal government has 50 million courses of treatment of the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza, used to treat swine flu, and has begun shipping portions of the stockpiles to states. Countries including the U.S., Britain and Iran have urged their citizens to avoid all non-essential travel to Mexico, where many people are wearing face masks and schools are closed until next week. Some schools are closed in the United States as well.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano dismissed suggestions that the U.S. should close portions of its border with Mexico. She said such a move would have very little benefit in containing the virus.