27th Oct 2016

EU health ministers scramble as swine flu hits Europe

  • People in Mexico City wearing masks on a train due to the swine flu outbreak (Photo: Eneas De Troya)

The Czech EU presidency has called an emergency meeting of the bloc's health ministers to take place "in all probability" on Thursday afternoon (30 April), as Spain on Monday confirmed the first case of swine flu in Europe.

The news came after Mexican health secretary Jose Angel Cordova said on Sunday that the number of suspected cases of people with the flu strain in his country had reached 1,614, with more than 100 suspected and 20 confirmed fatalities so far.

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The United States declared a state of emergency over the weekend with at least 20 people identified with the virus. Cases were also reported in Canada.

"The Presidency has been following the situation very closely, is aware of the seriousness of the outbreak on the American continent, and is determined to minimise the risk of impact on the European Union," the Czech EU presidency said in a statement.

In order to "evaluate the potential danger and all possible steps forward," it has called on Monday afternoon an urgent meeting of EU states' diplomats responsible for public health to prepare for the extraordinary ministerial.

The issue will also be discussed during an EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.

The announcement of the extraordinary health ministers gathering came almost at the same time as Spain's confirmation of the first flu case in Europe.

Spanish health minister Trinidad Jimenez said the case concerned a 23-year-old man in south-east Spain who had recently been to Mexico. Another 17 people are suspected to have the disease, the BBC reports.

Ms Jimenez added that the man has been responding well to treatment and his condition is not serious.

"The situation is under control," she stressed.

Experts in other member states - including Germany and the UK - have warned it is only a matter of time before the virus spreads in Europe.

People suspected to be infected are currently under observation in several European countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Italy and Switzerland.

Experts from the World Health Organisation will be meeting on Tuesday and decide whether to raise the level of the WHO pandemic crisis alert system from three to six. A six would mean that a pandemic is under way.

Raising of the alert or not will depend on the evaluation of human to human transfer in the past days.

Eat pork, but don't go to Mexico or the US

Meanwhile, EU health commissioner Androulla Vassiliou on Monday advised European citizens not to travel to the areas affected by the flu.

"Personally, I would try to avoid non-essential travel to the areas which are reported to be in the centre of the cluster," she said in a video statement released in Brussels.

On arriving in Luxembourg later on, where she was to brief EU foreign ministers on the issue, Ms Vassiliou stressed that people "should avoid traveling to Mexico or the United States of America unless it is very urgent for them."

For his part, Robert Madelin, Director General for Health and Consumer Protection in the European Commission, underlined that this "completely novel flu virus" – a mixture of swine, bird and human viruses – had "nothing to do with the food chain."

"This is a human flu virus ...Not only is this not a pig virus, but it is not affecting pigs, there is no human to pig transition."

"Similarly therefore, pigs are not carriers. Neither pigs, nor porcine embryos, nor pig meat. And I had a very nice filet de porc yesterday and I recommend you to go on eating pork," Mr Madelin told journalists during a press briefing in Brussels.

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