Europe Urges its Citizens to Forego Travel to Mexico and United States

By Matthew Harwood

The European Union (EU) has urged its citizens to forego all nonessential travel to Mexico and the United States as Europe's first infection of swine flu was confirmed in a hospitalized man in eastern Spain, reports The New York Times.

Swine flu has claimed 149 lives in Mexico and infected 1,600 more. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also confirmed 40 cases in the United States, while cases may have also appeared in Canada and New Zealand.

The confirmed case in Spain has led the EU to issue a stricter travel warning to Mexico and the United States than any of its member states individually, according to the Times.

The warning came as health officials in Spain confirmed that a man hospitalized in eastern Spain had tested positive for swine flu, becoming what appeared to be Europe’s first case of the disease. Health authorities were also testing 17 other suspected cases across Spain, a major hub for travel between Mexico and Europe.

Britain and other European Union nations had already issued travel advisories for those traveling to Mexico, but the European Union’s health commissioner went a step further on Monday in urging Europeans to avoid nonessential trips. Europeans, she told reporters in Luxembourg, “should avoid traveling to Mexico or the United States of America unless it is very urgent for them.”

Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, believes the EU's warning was premature. 

He told CNN today that "we’re going to find some [cases of swine flu], and we’ll find some of increasing severity and more of the mild cases. At this point I would not put a travel restriction or recommendation against coming to the United States.”

Besser noted that of all the confirmed cases, only one has required hospitalization.

Still, global health experts cannot accurately predict the flu's severity because there isn't enough information from Mexico's outbreak. Only two laboratories in the world can confirm a swine flu infection—one in Atlanta and another in Winnipeg, Canada. This bottleneck in analysis means that a more accurate picture of swine flu's pandemic potential will take some time.

Because so little is known yet, the WHO has not raised its pandemic alert level, even though it has opened its emergency response center—an ackowledgement that the agency and its public health experts believe that swine flu is a public health emergency.

Public health officials say that the widespread international response to swine flu demonstrates the value of preparing for previous public health scares like avian flu and SARS.

UPDATE: The Times now says that there was no official E.U. travel warning and that the European Union’s health commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, was only expressing her personal opinion.

Confusion regarding Europe’s position on travel arose when the European Union’s health commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, was questioned on a visit to Luxembourg and said Europeans “should avoid traveling to Mexico or the United States unless it’s very urgent.” .... Ms. Vassiliou’s office later denied she had issued any travel advisory and said she was only offering her personal opinion. “She didn’t want to insinuate risk where we’re not sure,” a spokesman said, adding that formal advice would be offered later.

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