MEXICO CITY (AP) — The World Health Organization raised its global alert level Monday, signaling the swine flu virus was spreading from human to human in community outbreaks, but it stopped short of declaring a full-blown pandemic.
The WHO announcement in Geneva followed a decision by the top EU health official urging Europeans to postpone nonessential travel to parts of the United States and Mexico because of the virus.
Mexico health department spokesman Carlos Olmos confirmed the move by the WHO to raise the alert level from Phase 3 to Phase 4.
Putting an alert at Phases 4 or 5 signals that the swine flu virus is becoming increasingly adept at spreading among humans. That move could lead governments to set trade, travel and other restrictions aimed at limiting the disease's spread.
The WHO's Phase 6 is the pandemic phase, characterized by outbreaks in at least two regions of the world.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the United States is preparing as if the swine flu outbreak already is a full pandemic.
The virus was suspected in up to 149 deaths in Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak with more than 1,600 cases suspected, while 40 cases — none fatal — were confirmed in the United States and six in Canada, the WHO said, adding that the number of confirmed cases worldwide was 73.
A young man in Spain and two people in Scotland have come down with swine flu following trips to Mexico, health officials said, in what were the first cases reported outside North America. The World Health Organization said it was still awaiting official reports from the U.K. about the Scottish cases.
Russia, Hong Kong and Taiwan said they would quarantine visitors showing symptoms of the virus amid global concern about a possible pandemic.
European and U.S. markets bounced back from early losses as pharmaceutical stocks were lifted by expectations that health authorities will increase stockpiles of anti-viral drugs. The stocks of airlines, hotels and other travel-related companies posted sharper losses.