Health authorities around the world are taking urgent steps to control spreading infections of H1N1 influenza A, or swine flu, which is on the brink of a pandemic.
Since it was identified as a serious public-health issue, the new swine flu virus has been blamed for making thousands of people ill, and the suspected death toll is growing.
The World Health Organization raised its global alert level for the new flu variant to Phase 5, one step below a declaration of a pandemic. Mexico, where the biggest cluster of swine flu infections is located, is trying to confirm the exact extent and severity of the virus.
So far, health authorities there say they have confirmed the new virus infected about 100 people, eight of whom died. It is suspected in the deaths of dozens more people in Mexico. The toll of sickness and death from the virus, which has been confirmed in a number of other countries, could go far higher.
The U.N. health agency has asked all countries to combat the spreading virus with "increased urgency." WHO director-general, Margaret Chan says it is clear a new pandemic is beginning, with the only uncertainty being how severe the effects of the virus will be.
The WHO says 11 countries have officially reported 257 cases of the illness. The only fatality from the virus outside Mexico has been in the United States, where a 23-month-old Mexican boy died this week while visiting relatives in Texas. The Mexican government is calling for the suspension of all non-essential activities in the country for five days, starting Friday.
Some schools have been shut down in the U.S., although President Barack Obama says there is no need for panic. The European Union held emergency talks on the crisis Thursday in Luxembourg.
Ministers from the Association of South-East Asian Nations plan to meet next week to coordinate their response. Other confirmed cases of the new swine flu have been reported in Austria, Britain, Canada, Germany, Israel, Spain, New Zealand, Netherlands and Switzerland. Australia, Colombia, France, Denmark and South Korea are among nations investigating suspected cases.