By RAY LILLEY / AP WRITER
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand reported suspected swine flu cases Monday in a second group of teenage students returning from Mexico, as Asian nations with potent memories of SARS and bird flu outbreaks screened travelers for fever with thermal scanners.
Hong Kong assigned a team of scientists to find a quick test for the latest virus to raise global fears of a pandemic, following confirmed human cases of the disease in Mexico, United States and Canada.
World Health Organization spokesman Peter Cordingly said the new virus was spreading quickly in Mexico and the southern United States, and it could be expected to turn up anywhere.
"These are early days. It's quite clear that there is a potential for this virus to become a pandemic and threaten globally," Cordingly, WHO's spokesman for the Western Pacific, 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."
Mexico's Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said late Sunday the number of suspected swine flu cases in his country had climbed to 1,614, including 103 deaths.
In New Zealand, Health Minister Tony Ryall said two students and a parent among a group of 15 that had just come 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.
Results from a WHO-registered laboratory were expected within days.
All the New Zealand students and teachers along with their families had voluntarily quarantined themselves at home. In addition, Ryall said three small groups of returned travelers were being monitored after reporting flu symptoms following recent trips to North America. He gave no further details.
Prime Minister John Key said everyone showing flu symptoms was being treated with Tamiflu as a precaution. Other passengers and crew on the suspect flights were also being given the antiviral drug, said health department official Julia Peters.
Tests were also under way on people with flu-like symptoms in Israel, France and Spain.
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 to existing tests that can take two or three days.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan on Sunday held teleconferences Sunday with staff and flu experts around the world, and urged governments to step up their surveillance of suspicious outbreaks.
Officials wasted no time taking that advice.
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.
In Malaysia, health workers wearing face masks took the temperatures of passengers as they arrived from a flight from Los Angeles.
Officials said travelers with flu-like symptoms would be given detailed health checks.
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 for passengers aboard their planes before being allowed to land in Australia.
China said anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms within two weeks of arrival had to report to authorities.
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 Monday it was banning all pork imports to prevent swine fever infections.
In Serbia, health officials said all international passengers arriving at airports in the capital of Belgrade and the southern city of Nis would be checked, interviewed and instructed where to go in case they develop any symptoms.
Many nations issued travel warnings for Mexico.
The United States has confirmed at least 11 cases of swine flu, and Canada six cases.
Many measures recalled those taken across Asia during the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic and used more recently to monitor bird flu.
Drawing on their fight against SARS, experts in Hong Kong warned that swine flu seems harder to detect early and may spread faster.
The virus could move between people before any symptoms show up, said John Simon, a scientific adviser to Hong Kong's Center for Health Protection.
"Border guardings, thermal imaging will not detect much of this flu when it eventually comes through because a lot of people will be incubating," he said.
A New Zealand student who was among those sickened said her group had stayed with Mexican families in their homes during the last few days of their trip, to better their Spanish language skills.
Cordingly said the WHO estimates that up to 500,000 people are traveling aboard planes at any given time, giving human-to-human viruses an easy way to spread globally quickly.
Some people were resigned to swine flu appearing in their country.
"Since the world is now globalized, there are many foreign tourists here in Korea and many Koreans also go abroad. As the whole world is like one village, I am afraid that this flu will quickly become Korea's problem," said Sun Moon-bi, 56, a businessman in Seoul.
Associated Press writers Fernando Sepe Jr. in Manila, Gillian Wong in Beijing, Frank Jordans in Geneva, Min Lee in Hong Kong, David Koop in Mexico City, Alex Kennedy in Singapore, Rohan Sullivan in Sydney, Jae Hee Suh in Seoul, Julia Zappei in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.