MADRID – The European Union urged Europeans on Monday to postpone nonessential travel to the United States and Mexico because of the swine flu virus, and Spanish health officials confirmed the first case outside North America.
World stock markets fell as investors worried that the deadly outbreak could go global and derail any global economic recovery. Airlines took the brunt of the selling.
The virus was suspected in up to 103 deaths in Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak with more than 1,600 cases suspected, while 20 cases were confirmed in the United States and six in Canada.
A top German holiday tour operator said it was suspending charter flights to Mexico City.
"These are early days. It's quite clear that there is a potential for this virus to become a pandemic and threaten globally," World Health Organization spokesman Peter Cordingley told AP Television News.
"But we honestly don't know," he added. "We don't know enough yet about how this virus operates. More work needs to be done."
Spanish Health Minister Trinidad Jimenez said the country's first confirmed swine flu case was a young man in the town of Almansa who recently returned from Mexico for university studies and is responding well to treatment. Neither he nor any of the 20 other people under observation for the virus are in serious condition.
Cordingley singled out plane travel as an easy way the virus could spread, noting that the WHO estimates that up to 500,000 people are aboard planes at any time.
Governments in Asia — with potent memories of SARS and avian flu outbreaks — heeded the warning amid global fears of a pandemic.
Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines dusted off thermal scanners used during the 2003 SARS crisis and were checking for signs of fever among passengers arriving at airports from North America. South Korea and Indonesia introduced similar screening.
Russia, Hong Kong and Taiwan said visitors returning from flu-affected areas with fevers would be quarantined.
Australian Health Minister Nicola Roxon said pilots on international flights would be required to file a report noting any flu-like symptoms among their passengers before being allowed to land in Australia.
China said anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms within two weeks of arrival had to report to authorities.
Some officials cautioned that the checks might not be enough.
In Hong Kong, Thomas Tsang, controller for territory's Center for Health Protection, said the government and universities aim to develop a quick test for the new flu strain in a week or two that will return results in four to six hours, compared with existing tests that can take 2-3 days.
China and Russia banned imports of pork and pork products from Mexico and three U.S. states that have reported cases of swine flu, and other governments were increasing their screening of pork imports.
Indonesia — the country hardest hit by bird flu — said it was banning all pork imports to prevent swine fever infections.
Germany's largest tour operator, the Hannover-based TUI, suspended all charter flights to Mexico City through May 4. The suspension includes flights operated by TUI itself and also through companies 1-2 Fly, Airtours, Berge & Meer, Grebeco and L'tur.
TUI said other holiday trips to Mexico would continue to operate but would not make stops in Mexico City "for the next few weeks." Japan's largest tour agency, JTB Corp., suspended tours to Mexico at least through June 30.
At Madrid's Barajas International Airport, passengers arriving from Mexico on Monday were asked to fill out forms saying where they had been in Mexico, whether they had felt any cold symptoms and told to leave a contact address and phone number.
"Where we were, there was no real alarm but we followed what was happening on the news and we're a little bit worried," said Spaniard Filomeno Ruiz, back from vacation in Cancun.
Passengers were also given leaflets urging them to contact health authorities if they notice any symptoms in the 10 days following arrival.
In the baggage arrival area of the airport, ground crews and police could be seen wearing surgical face masks. Some travelers took precautionary measures even though they had not been in Mexico.
New Zealand Health Minister Tony Ryall said two students and a parent among a group of 15 who just came back from a class trip to Mexico had mild flu and were being tested for swine flu. On Sunday, officials said nine students and one teacher from a separate group that also were in Mexico "likely" have swine flu.
All the New Zealand students and teachers along with their families had voluntarily quarantined themselves at home. Ryall said three small groups of returned travelers were being monitored after reporting flu symptoms following recent trips to North America. He gave no other details.