Governments around the world are intensifying efforts to contain further outbreaks of a deadly swine flu that has killed scores of people in Mexico and has spread globally. The virus has been largely spread by tourists who spent time in Mexico. But it can easily passed from person to person.
It is not yet a pandemic. But the swine flu has journeyed far from its Mexican origins. Countries around the world are watching travelers for signs of the flu. And they are taking stock of their anti-viral medications.
WHO: Getting closer to a pandemic
The World Health Organization's Gregory Hartl issued this warning: "We are a significant step closer to a pandemic. Phase four again is a kind of a turning point phase," Hartl said.
Phase four means the flu can pass from one person to another. Rear Admiral Anne Schuchat from the Centers for Disease Control told a U.S. Senate hearing the situation is not likely to get better soon. "I think we really need to be prepared for a worsening of the situation," he stated.
Flu is highly contagious and US could experience an incubation period
And even though the flu season in the northern hemisphere is nearing an end, infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci had this grim warning. "These kinds of viruses may come along in the spring and may or may not be severe and may or may not spread widely," Dr. Fauci cautioned. "But from history, we know that they can, when you get to the flu season in the winter, come back with a vengeance."
The World Health Organization says swine flu is a highly contagious acute respiratory disease of pigs. But this virus is different.
"This particular virus, this H1N1 that we're calling swine flu has genetic elements from a human influenza, genetic elements from a pig influenza and genetic elements from an avian influenza," Dr. Fauci explained. "They all come together and you have this brand new virus that we've never seen before."
How the US is preparing
Dr. Fauci said the world has been preparing for a flu pandemic since the outbreak of a deadly bird flu that started several years ago.
He says the Centers for Disease Control has isolated the swine flu virus, and pharmaceutical companies are starting to work on a vaccine.
"So those are the kinds of things that are going into the preparation of a vaccine," Dr. Fauci says, "But the specific answer to your question is that vaccine development - the bell has rung and it's moving along."
A swine flu vaccine will not be ready for several months. Until then, public health officials worldwide are telling people to frequently wash their hands, cover the mouth and nose when they cough, avoid crowds, stay away from people who are sick and call a doctor if they feel achy or feverish.