By GRANT PECK / AP WRITER
BANGKOK — Health ministers from Southeast Asian countries will meet, probably in early May in the Thai capital, to discuss how to deal with the swine flu crisis, the head of area's regional grouping said Wednesday.
Surin Pitsuwan, the secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, said the ministers "should get together at the earliest time possible," according to a press release from the group.
None of Asean's 10 member countries have yet confirmed any cases of swine flu, but scores of tests were being carried out on anyone reporting flu symptoms. South Korea was awaiting final test results in a "probable" case, and New Zealand has confirmed 14 infections—the first in the Asia-Pacific region—all in people recently returned from Mexico.
"The Thai Ministry of Public Health has expressed its readiness to host the meeting in Bangkok most probably in early May," Surin was quoted saying after he held consultations with Thailand and the Philippines. The announcement said the Philippines would chair the meeting.
Thailand's reputation as a suitable venue for regional meetings was cast into doubt earlier this month when a mob of anti-government demonstrators broke into a popular resort hotel hosting a summit of Asean and other Asian leaders, forcing its cancellation. Surin is a former Thai foreign minister and was a senior member of the Democrat Party of current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Cambodia's prime minister earlier Wednesday had called for an emergency meeting of Asean members to discuss how to tackle the outbreak.
"We need common measures to prevent and fight against the fast spread of swine flu," Prime Minister Hun Sen said. "Southeast Asian leaders should have an emergency meeting right now."
Governments in Asia have potent memories of the 2003 SARS crisis and bird flu. Bird flu first began ravaging poultry stocks across Asia in 2003 and has caused 257 human fatalities, mostly in Southeast Asia.
Surin said in an earlier statement that officials have "the necessary experience" from past outbreaks to coordinate as "swine flu threatens to spread to the region."
Regional health experts who took part in an Asean-organized teleconference discussed the importance of harmonizing measures and initiatives, the group said.
They also discussed specific actions being taken by the individual member states, such as "screening of arrivals from effected countries using thermal scanners and health declaration forms and health advisory to passengers."
Meanwhile global health authorities warned Wednesday that swine flu was threatening to bloom into a pandemic, and the virus spread farther in Europe even as the outbreak appeared to stabilize at its epicenter. A toddler who succumbed in Texas became the first death outside Mexico.
Mexico, taking a drastic step as confirmed swine flu cases doubled to 99, including eight dead, announced it would temporarily suspend all nonessential activity of the federal government and private business from May 1-5. Essential services like transport, supermarkets, trash collection and hospitals will remain open.
New deaths finally seemed to be leveling off after an aggressive public health campaign in Mexico—only one additional confirmed death was announced Wednesday night—but the World Health Organization said the global threat is nevertheless serious enough to ramp up efforts to produce a vaccine against the virus.
"It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic," WHO Director General Margaret Chan said in Geneva. "We do not have all the answers right now, but we will get them."
It was the first time the WHO had declared a Phase 5 outbreak, the second-highest on its threat scale, indicating a pandemic could be imminent.
The first US death from the outbreak was a Mexico City toddler who traveled to Texas with family and died Monday night at a Houston hospital. US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius predicted the child would not be the last US death from swine flu.
The virus, a mix of pig, bird and human genes to which people have limited natural immunity, had spread to at least nine countries. In the United States, nearly 100 have been sickened in 11 states.