Pandemic risk: UK expects swine flu cases

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LONDON & BRUSSELS - The outbreak of swine flu believed to have been responsible for killing 103 people in Mexico, and which has triggered a US state of public health emergency, has prompted UK and European Union health ministers to warn that the pandemic is expected to cross the Atlantic.

The US has already confirmed 20 cases across five states. Six cases have so far been confirmed in Canada, with 10 reported in New Zealand, four in France, seven in Spain and one in Israel.

The UK Department of Health says surveillance has been stepped up, with tests continuing on two Britons suffering flu symptoms after returning from Mexico, where pneumonia and respiratory illnesses linked to the virus have claimed 103 lives.

"I think probably we should expect cases given the way this has spread across America. It is sensible that we plan in the assumption that there will be cases," says Justin McCracken, chief executive of the UK Health Protection Agency. "We are already mobilising things in the UK in case the virus comes over here. I definitely think we have enough of the drugs."

The European Commission has already called for an emergency meeting of EU health ministers to be held "as soon as possible" to discuss the implications of the outbreak for Europe.

Virologist claims that a worst-case scenario could cause 120,000 deaths worldwide have reawakened pandemic risk concerns not seen since the spread of Avian influenza - bird flu - between 2004 and 2007.

Bird flu spread rapidly across South-east Asia and eventually to the Middle East, Africa and Europe, with recorded cases in the UK, France, Germany and much of central and eastern Europe.

The pandemic risk of bird flu came ninth in the top 10 operational risk worries of financial services firms in 2007 (see OR&C, December 2007), but in the months since then the financial crisis has overshadowed pandemic risk in firms' op risk priorities.

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