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Some measures won’t help prevent flu pandemic – report

2A woman talks on a phone through a protective mask while waiting for a health check at a hospital in Hanoi August 4, 2009.

Some measures won’t help prevent flu pandemic – report

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Closing schools, stopping large gatherings and other such measures are unlikely to do much to prevent the spread of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, a team of experts predicted on Wednesday.

They said pandemic closely resembles the pandemic of H2N2 influenza in 1957 when it quickly became apparent that there was little officials could do to stop it.

“Efforts to mitigate it were futile,” Brooke Courtney Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said in a telephone interview.

Federal officials are expected to announce their recommendations for school closures on Friday. Local school districts and states usually make the decision to close schools, but they look to the federal government for advice.

At the height of the epidemic in May, more than 700 schools closed in the United States, according to the Department of Education.

In Mexico, where the pandemic started, officials closed government offices and schools for around two weeks in April and May, and encouraged businesses to close.

H1N1 is still circulating and, just as influenza did in 1957, it is dominating the mixture of viruses in the southern hemisphere’s flu season going on now.

In its latest update last week the World Health Organization reported 162,230 confirmed cases and 1,154 deaths. But flu experts said this probably reflected only a fraction of the true count as not every patient can be diagnosed with a lab test.

Experts expect the flu will pick up activity in the northern hemisphere’s autumn and the WHO predicted one third of the world’s population — two billion people — will eventually be infected.

TOO WIDESPREAD

Governments are taking different approaches to slowing the spread of the virus. Last month, British experts on the spread of disease said closing schools at the first sign of a new pandemic might delay the worst so health officials can prepare, but cannot prevent the spread of the disease.

Writing in the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, Courtney, Dr. D. A. Henderson and colleagues said it appears that the new H1N1 is now too widespread to try to stop.

“In 1957 it was decided pretty early on that efforts to quarantine or isolate people would not be effective,” Courtney said.

As happened this year, the virus first appeared in the northern hemisphere’s spring. It worsened in the fall. “The opening of schools in September appeared to be a major factor in initiating community epidemics,” the researchers wrote.

“Schools were not closed for the purpose of trying to control the spread of disease. They were closed because too many teachers or administrators or students were out,” Courtney said.

In 1957, 25 percent of the U.S. population became ill. Global health experts estimate two million people died.

“What we saw was that the federal government took very practical steps to deal with the expected pandemic in the fall in 1957,” Courtney said. “They understood that, yes, it was expected that there would be a lot of people who got sick.”

In 1957 it took months to make a vaccine and then it was not very effective, the researchers found.

Drug companies have started making vaccine against H1N1 swine flu. But the recommended population of 160 million people, including healthcare workers and pregnant women, cannot be fully immunized until December, experts estimate. Two doses are needed for full protection.

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British Airways checking passengers for H1N1 virus

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British Airways checking passengers for H1N1 virus

British Airways has told its check-in staff to look out for passengers showing symptoms of the H1N1 virus and to alert doctors who could bar them from boarding a flight, the airline said.

The directive was issued in the past “couple of weeks”, a spokeswoman for the airline said, explaining that it was part of efforts to limit the spread of swine flu.

“We’ve given our staff advice in terms of the symptoms to look out for,” she said.

“If they have any concerns about a passenger when they present for check-in, they have a 24-hour medical number to call and the passenger can then be checked.”

Calling the measures “standard practice” for a medical situation, the spokeswoman said only a handful of people had so far been turned away from boarding British Airways flights as a result of the medical checks.

“Obviously with swine flu spreading, we have to be responsible and make sure we do what we can to prevent the disease spreading,” she said.

Virgin Atlantic has also adopted similar measures, according to the Sunday Times newspaper. Officials from Virgin Atlantic were not immediately available to comment.

A group of 52 British school children and their teachers were quarantined in Beijing on Saturday after four pupils were admitted to hospital infected with the virus. Another four pupils have since had to be admitted for treatment.

The group arrived in China last week for a culture and study tour. But shortly after arrival at Beijing airport, four of the students — all believed to be teenagers — were admitted to hospital showing symptoms of swine flu infection.

British authorities confirmed this week that 29 Britons infected with the H1N1 virus had died, with officials making plans for up to a third of the population to fall ill.

In total there are an estimated 55,000 new cases of swine flu in Britain a week, although in the vast majority of cases the symptoms are mild.

The pandemic has killed around 430 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

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Few rally for Anwar as Malaysia trial delayed

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Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim waves before he leaves the courthouse in Kuala Lumpur July 8, 2009.

Few rally for Anwar as Malaysia trial delayed

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Just a handful of people turned out to cheer Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at his latest court appearance as a new poll said government reforms were popular, which may show Anwar’s influence is waning.

Anwar denounced the trial for sodomy which had been due to start on Wednesday as a “despicable and desperate” move by the government to remove him from politics after the judge said he would delay it and hear applications from lawyers on July 15.

On an overcast day in the Malaysian capital, around a hundred black-clad opposition supporters shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) and “reformasi” (reform), pushed into the court complex but there were no clashes with police, who heavily outnumbered them.

The protesters were far fewer than the thousands who thronged court appearances in 1998 at the height of the Asian financial crisis after Anwar was dismissed as deputy prime minister, and charged with sodomy and corruption in a case lasting 14 months.

“It is not as tension-filled as before. It is almost as if people are used to seeing this situation and frankly, I am tired of this case,” said Mohd Amir Hamza, a shopkeeper who watched the arrival of Anwar and photographed him with his mobile phone.

The judge said on Wednesday that he would hear applications for dismissal of the case, discovery of evidence by the defense and to set a new date for the trial on July 15 after Anwar’s lawyers said they needed more time to prepare.

Anwar, 61, wearing a grey coat and fawn shirt and accompanied by his wife, told reporters after the hearing that the government was again persecuting him in a bid to maintain its 51-year grip on power in this Southeast Asian country of 27 million people.

“UMNO (the lead government coalition party) political leaders will resort to a repeat of this same game after seeing all their cards … are not enough to contain the tide of people wanting change,” he said.

If found guilty in the court where a judge sits alone, Anwar could face 20 years in jail, effectively ending his career.

The National Front government, led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), stumbled to its worst election losses in 2008, losing its two-thirds parliamentary majority and seeing five of 13 states fall to the opposition, a record haul.

Since then the National Front has lost a series of state and parliamentary by-elections forcing the government to switch prime ministers, appointing Najib Razak, the son of Malaysia’s second post-independence leader, to head the government in April.

POPULAR REFORMS FROM NEW PM

In his first 100 days in office, Najib has announced an ambitious set of reforms, aimed at boosting foreign investment in this export-dependent country whose economy is expected by the government to contract up to five percent this year.

Last week he unveiled a series of measures to open up the economy, risking the ire of the majority Malay population who saw some of their economic privileges removed.

But a poll published on Wednesday showed Najib appeared to have gained traction for the government and his reforms had won widespread approval.

Najib’s personal popularity rating surged to 65 percent from 42 percent in mid-May, according to a poll from the independent Merdeka Center, and 60 percent of the 1,062 people questioned approved of the reforms.

Ibrahim Suffian, head of the polling body, said Najib began his premiership with lower ratings but had gained ground by initiating economic measures such as his economic liberalization measures.

Najib has also attempted to address ethnic and socio-economic issues by introducing an inclusive “1Malaysia” policy to promote improved relations between the majority Malays and ethnic Chinese and Indians.

“Najib has created new political capital by these measures but how well he can hold up his support depends on how he delivers, specifically on two key reforms which are at the top of the respondents agenda, namely the economy and ethnic equality,” said Ibrahim.

(Writing by David Chance; Editing by Jerry Norton)

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