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WHO goes to Phase 5 as swine-flu spreads to six new cases in Canada

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The United Nations agency that guards the health of humanity moved one step closer to declaring a full-blown pandemic Wednesday as swine flu continued its spread in Canada and around the world, claiming its first life outside embattled Mexico's borders.

The World Health Organization increased its alert level to Phase 5, one tier below that of pandemic, as the caseload in the United States jumped to nearly 100 - including the death of a Mexican toddler in Texas - and Ontario and B.C. each reported three new cases.

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"All countries should immediately now activate their pandemic preparedness plans; countries should remain on high alert," WHO director-general Dr. Margaret Chan said from Geneva in a chilling call to arms to governments and agencies around the world.

"This change to a higher phase of alert is a signal ... that certain actions now should be undertaken with increased urgency and at an accelerated pace."

Phase 5 of the WHO's six-tiered alert system, with Phase 6 representing a full-blown pandemic, indicates human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region, according to the organization's alert system.

Phase 5 "is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short."

Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief medical officer of health, acknowledged the alarming tone of Chan's announcement, but reassured Canadians that health authorities in their country have a plan in place and that it's being followed.

"I'm sure many people will be anxious upon hearing this, however for Canada it does not mean a change in what we are facing and how we approach it," Butler-Jones said.

"As we continue our surveillance, we will find more and more cases, and as for any form of influenza, some will be more severe, and unfortunately we may see some deaths as well."

A Mexican toddler who died in a Houston hospital after falling ill during a visit to Texas became the first to die from the swine flu outside Mexico, prompting U.S. President Barack Obama - marking his 100th day in office Wednesday - to offer his "thoughts and prayers" to the boy's family.

"This is obviously a serious situation," and "we are closely and continuously monitoring" it, Obama said of the spreading illness.

In the U.S., the number of confirmed cases swelled to nearly 100, in 10 different states stretching from coast to coast. A Marine in southern California was identified as a possible case; 39 others were confined to their base, pending test results.

Six more confirmed cases brought the Canadian total to 19 - four in Nova Scotia, seven in Ontario, six in British Columbia and two in Alberta. Germany and Austria became the latest European countries hit by the disease. Britain closed a school after a 12-year-old girl tested positive.

In those parts of the world where the virus had yet to materialize, misinformation appeared to be following an equally virulent path.

Egypt ordered the slaughter of every pig in the country and Gabon became the latest country to ban pork imports, despite persistent assurances from all quarters that swine flu cannot be contracted from eating pork products.

Egypt's overwhelmingly Muslim population does not eat pork, but farmers raise some 300,000-350,000 pigs for the Christian minority. Those farmers will still be allowed to sell the meat from the slaughtered animals.

Cuba eased its flight ban, deciding just to block flights coming in from Mexico. And Asian countries greeted returning travellers with teams of medical workers and carts of disinfectants, eager to keep swine flu from infecting their continent.

Mexico's government is temporarily suspending all non-essential activity of the federal government and private business.

Health Secretary Jose Cordova says non-essential federal government offices will be closed from May 1-5. He said all non-essential private businesses must also close for that period but essential services like transport, supermarkets, trash-collection and hospitals will remain open.

Mexican Treasury Secretary Agustin Carstens said the flu epidemic may cost the economy between 0.3 and 0.5 per cent of GDP.

Swine flu is suspected of killing nearly 160 people in Mexico and sickening nearly 2,500 there.

Canada has agreed to use its National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg to help Mexico test viral samples, health ministers from the two country's said Wednesday.

The Public Health Agency of Canada lab has already begun testing 200 specimens from patients in Mexico with severe respiratory illness.

"Infectious diseases just don't respect borders, and so anything we can do to help our neighbours helps us protect our own citizens as well," said Canadian Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

The Canadian Tour, which until Wednesday had been planning to proceed with its San Luis Potosi Open golf tournament without caddies or spectators, opted instead to indefinitely postpone all three of its scheduled Mexican events due to health concerns.

Germany's national disease control centre, the Robert Koch Institute, said the country's three cases include a 22-year-old woman hospitalized in Hamburg, a man in his late 30s at a hospital in Regensburg, north of Munich, and a 37-year-old woman from another Bavarian town. All three had recently returned from Mexico.

Austria's Health Ministry said a 28-year-old woman who recently returned from a month-long trip to Guatemala via Mexico City and Miami has the virus but is recovering.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said health officials were ordering extra medicine and "several million more" face masks to deal with the virus.

British media reports, citing an unidentified European surgical mask manufacturer, said the country was seeking 32 million masks to protect its health workers from a possible pandemic.

Butler-Jones, however, warned Canadians away from the use of masks as a preventative measure, as they can often do more harm than good.

"We are not currently recommending that people in Canada wear masks in this situation," he said.

"Our research shows that wearing masks actually does very little to reduce the spread of infection in the general population, and that improper use may actually increase your risk of getting ill."

"We've decided to build stocks of anti-virals, from 35 million to 50 million," Brown said, adding that the government had put in enhanced airport checks and was going to mail swine flu information leaflets to every household in Britain.

In addition to a couple in Scotland who got swine flu on their Mexican honeymoon, new British cases included a 12-year-old girl in the southwest English town of Torbay. Brown said her school had been closed as a precaution.

He said the other two cases were adults in London and in Birmingham. All three had visited Mexico, were receiving anti-viral drugs and were responding well to treatment, Brown said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with cabinet ministers to discuss swine flu and his health minister said France will ask the European Union to suspend flights to Mexico.

The U.S., the European Union and other countries have discouraged non-essential travel to Mexico. Cuba suspended all regular and charter flights from Mexico to the island but was still allowing airlines to return travellers to Mexico.

New Zealand's number of swine flu cases rose to 14, 13 of them among a school group that recently returned from Mexico. Officials say the swine flu strain infecting the students is the same as that in Mexico. All were responding well to antiviral drugs and in voluntary quarantine at home.

New Zealand has 44 other possible cases, with tests under way.

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