Swine flu presses to Asia, Italy

HONG KONG: Swine flu spread across the globe Saturday as South Korea confirmed its first case and Italy said its first patient with the flu had already recovered, while the death toll in Mexico rose to 16.

South Korean authorities said a 51-year-old woman who had recently visited Mexico was infected and Hong Kong and China raced to find anyone who had come into contact with a Mexican who has the virulent flu.

Italy said a man in his 50s in the central region of Tuscany had returned from Mexico on April 23 and was hospitalised at Massa, near Florence, a week later but he had responded well to treatment.

"The patient is cured, and has no further symptoms" of the A(H1N1) influenza, Antonio Delvino, a Tuscany health official, was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency.

In Mexico, where the virus originated last month, Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova confirmed another fatality and said he expected the death toll to rise further in the coming days.

He confirmed that "the majority of the deaths are women" and said one had been pregnant.

Cordova said it was too early to say if the epidemic was stabilizing, after his earlier comment that the H1N1 virus was "not so aggressive" as first feared.

"We need more days to see what the behaviour is, and to see if there really is a sustained reduction," he said.

"At this moment we can expect in a few days that there will be another increase, but at the moment it is unpredictable, we don't have that data."

South Korean health officials said the country's first confirmed case -- reportedly a nun -- was expected to be discharged from hospital Monday.

Hong Kong meanwhile confirmed a 25-year-old Mexican who arrived from Mexico via Shanghai had brought the first case of swine flu into a city living in fear of a repeat of the SARS virus and bird flu outbreaks of recent years.

After the discovery of the case Friday, police sealed off the hotel in Hong Kong where he had briefly stayed and placed the building and more than 300 guests and staff under a seven-day quarantine.

The case sparked a regional alert, with China immediately ordering health authorities to track down and isolate the man's fellow passengers, while some pharmacies in Hong Kong sold out of face masks.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang was taking no chances in the densely populated, sub-tropical territory, saying he would "raise the alert level from serious to emergency."

India and Japan also reported suspected cases, with Japanese authorities saying a four-month-old baby from the United States was being tested.

The alarm caused by the flu was evident in Egypt , where a slaughter of the nation's 250,000 pigs began despite the World Health Organization insisting that there was no evidence that the animals were transmitting flu to humans.

Benin became the second African country to report a suspected case of the flu as Health Minister Issifou Takpara told AFP that a European woman may have contracted the virus during a trip in Mexico.

Britain recorded its first cases of swine flu apparently transmitted to people who had not travelled recently to Mexico, as the number infected rose to 13.

But amid the spread of the virus, health authorities said the world appeared better prepared to fight an epidemic than a few years ago, and vowed that a vaccine was only months away.

The WHO has warned that a pandemic is now imminent, raising its alert level to five out of six, but Marie-Paule Kieny, its director of the Initiative for Vaccine Research said: "We have no doubt that making a successful vaccine is possible in a relatively short period of time."

She added it might take four to six months.

Some 143 infections are confirmed in the United States across 20 states, but officials said the outbreak did not appear to be anywhere near as dangerous as the 1918 flu epidemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

"We do not see the markers for virulence that were seen in the 1918 virus," said Nancy Cox, the chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention influenza division.

Most cases outside Mexico have involved only mild symptoms of the illness that can be treated with existing flu medicines, and some experts have suggested the virus may have weakened as it was carried outside the country.