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Swine flu alert nears pandemic level
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Geneva-based World Health Organization on Wednesday raised its alert level for the fast-spreading swine flu to its next-to-highest notch, signaling a global pandemic could be imminent.
The move came after the virus spread to at least 10 U.S. states from coast to coast and swept deeper into Europe.
"It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic," said WHO Director General Margaret Chan. "We do not have all the answers right now but we will get them."
In the United States, President Barack Obama mourned the first U.S. death, a Mexican toddler who had traveled with his family to Texas. Total American cases surged to nearly 100, and Obama said wider school closings might be necessary.
In Mexico, where the flu is believed to have originated, officials said Wednesday the disease is now confirmed or suspected in 159 deaths, and nearly 2,500 illnesses.
There were no other deaths confirmed from the flu. But health officials in the United States and around the world braced for them.
Dr. Richard Besser, the acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in Atlanta there were 91 confirmed cases in ten states, with 51 in New York, 16 in Texas and 14 in California. Two cases have been confirmed in Kansas, Massachusetts and Michigan, while single cases have been reported in Arizona, Indiana, Nevada and Ohio.
State officials in Maine said laboratory tests had confirmed three cases in that state, although those had not yet been included in the CDC count. And the Pentagon said that a Marine in southern California had tested positive for the disease.
WHO has confirmed human cases of swine flu in Mexico, the United States, Canada, Britain, Israel, New Zealand and Spain.
Germany and Austria became the latest countries to report infections. Germany reported four cases on Wednesday, Austria one.
In Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was questioned closely by senators about whether the U.S. should close its border with Mexico, where the outbreak apparently began and the casualties have been the greatest. She repeated the administration's position that questioning of people at borders and ports of entry was sufficient for now and said closing borders "has not been merited by the facts."
The WHO said the phase 5 alert means there is sustained human to human spread in at least two countries. It also signals that efforts to produce a vaccine will be ramped up.
Just Monday, the WHO had raised the alert level from 3 to 4. The organization is part of the United Nations.
Asked for advice for ordinary citizens, Chan, the WHO chief, said: "Continue with your business but try to pay special attention to personal hygiene."
Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO's top flu expert, said vigilance was all important because it was not known how severe the outbreaks would become.