, GENEVA, Jun 11 – World health officials were to meet on whether to declare a global flu pandemic, as Hong Kong ordered all of its primary schools shut after finding the first cluster of local swine flu cases.
The World Health Organization (WHO) was to consult with its emergency committee of flu experts, a body of scientists that could recommend the declaration of a pandemic, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said.
Hartl told AFP the meeting would begin at noon (1000 GMT).
It comes a day after WHO chief Margaret Chan held a teleconference with representatives of countries worst hit by swine flu to assess if there was "undisputable" evidence of local spread of the virus.
So far the WHO has left its six-level pandemic alert scale unchanged at phase five – signalling that a pandemic is "imminent."
But if it determines that there are sustained local transmissions outside the Americas, it could raise the alert to six – suggesting a full-blown pandemic.
The WHO on Wednesday put the number of A(H1N1) infections at 27,737 in 74 countries, including 141 deaths.
Nations such as Australia, Britain, Chile and Japan – which are reporting growing numbers of infections – are being watched carefully as they are outside the Americas, where swine flu was first detected in April.
Ahead of the WHO meeting in Geneva, Hong Kong authorities decided to close all primary schools, kindergartens, child care centres and special schools for two weeks in an effort to control the spread of the virus.
The decision came after 12 pupils at a city secondary school were found to have contracted the A(H1N1) virus, Chief Executive Donald Tsang said.
Authorities were unable to identify the source of the infection, making it the first "cluster" of human swine flu cases in the city without a known link to those travelling overseas, Tsang said.
"Given the global situation, (for) Hong Kong to have its own local cases is simply inevitable," Tsang added.
"I believe the fellow citizens and the government have done all we can in postponing the arrival of the first indigenous case."
The move to shut primary schools rather than secondary schools was made because young pupils are more vulnerable to catching the virus, Tsang said.
Hong Kong is nervous about infectious diseases following the outbreak of the SARS virus in 2003, which killed 300 people here and a further 500 around the world after one carrier spread the disease in a Hong Kong hotel.
In Australia, where the number of swine flu cases has now reached 1,263, four sufferers were admitted to intensive care wards Thursday.
Rugby league player Karmichael Hunt is the latest high-profile athlete to contract the virus in Australia, which is threatening to throw the country’s sporting schedule into chaos.
According to the WHO figures released Wednesday, Britain added 109 new infections, bringing its total to 666 while Japan reported 75 new infections, taking its total to 485.
The Palestinian territories confirmed their first case in a four-year-old boy who had returned to the West Bank from the United States.
Fears are currently greatest in the southern hemisphere, with the onset of its winter season.
Meanwhile, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin has left China after being quarantined in Shanghai following a swine flu scare, his spokesman said on Thursday.
Nagin, who was held Sunday after a fellow passenger on his flight fell ill with a suspected case of swine flu, left China late Wednesday, his spokesman James Ross told AFP.