Eight cases of virus confirmed and 230 under investigation

A scientist handles viral samples at the West of Scotland Specialist Virology Centre at the Gartnavel General Hospital

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A scientist handles viral samples at Gartnavel General Hospital, Glasgow, where experts are testing flu samples for H1N1

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The first case of human-to-human transmission in Britain of the swine flu virus could be confirmed today, as dozens more people are tested across the world.

Graeme Pacitti, 24, who came into contact with the Scottish couple who were the first confirmed cases earlier this week of the H1N1 virus in Britain, is also a “probable” case and is having further tests, the Scottish government said.

Doctors also diagnosed three new infections in England, bringing the British total to eight confirmed cases, the Department of Health said. Two of the cases are in London and one in Newcastle. All are said to be responding well to treatment.

Earlier, the Chief Medical Officer said that Britain would see “many, many more cases” of swine flu, although he predicted that most people would recover. In total, 230 possible cases are being investigated in Britain.

Mr Pacitti, an NHS worker, was put in quarantine when he fell ill after a night out with his football team, which included Iain Askham, 27, who was discharged from hospital with his wife, Dawn, yesterday after recovering from the virus. The Askhams were the first British people to be confirmed with swine flu after they picked up the virus on their honeymoon in Mexico.

They said last night that they thought they had become infected on their flight back to Britain because five men sitting close to them on their flight from Cancún to Birmingham had been coughing and sneezing throughout the journey. “I actually said to Dawn, ‘I think we’re going to be getting off this plane with the plague,’ ” Mr Askham said.

The possible transmission of the virus from human to human could prompt the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare a full-blown pandemic. Although Mr Pancitti was given the all-clear initially, he continued to show symptoms that led to a further test. It was positive for type-A influenza, the most notorious type, of which the Mexican strain is a sub-type. Results of further tests to identify whether the infection is the H1N1 strain are expected today.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s Health Secretary, said: “If this case was confirmed, it would be the first case in Scotland of onward transmission, but I stress it is not confirmed at this stage.” A positive test result today would be the second case of human-to-human transmission of the virus in Europe, after a man in Spain became infected earlier this week despite not having been to an affected area.

The WHO moved its official alert level to phase five out of six on Wednesday night, citing evidence of the virus spreading between people in Mexico and the United States.

Phase six, the pandemic phase, is defined as “community-level outbreaks in at least one other country”, suggesting that further evidence of human-to-human transmission in Britain or Spain could prompt the WHO to consider declaring an official pandemic. One of the new cases in England is a woman who returned from Cancún and lives with two students from the University of Newcastle.

After announcements that the Government would stockpile millions of doses of antiviral drugs and the start of a public health campaign urging people to use tissues, throw them away and regularly wash their hands, Gordon Brown said: “I do want to reassure the British people that we are taking all the precautions that are necessary. We have been prepared for a scenario such as this for many years.”

Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, said that if Britain were to see onward transmission of infections to people who have not visited the affected areas it would suggest “an escalation of the problem”.

He noted, however, that the symptoms of the illness outside Mexico were so far relatively minor, with the only reported death outside that country being a 23-month-old Mexican girl who travelled to Texas for treatment.

The Republic of Ireland reported its first suspected case of the H1N1 strain last night, pending further tests.

Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general, said that despite new cases confirmed in Switzerland and the Netherlands, a phase five alert was still appropriate. “We do not have any evidence that we should move to phase six or that any such move is imminent right now,” he said. He added that continuing infections could chiefly affect countries that were about to enter their winter.

In Mexico, the authorities raised the tally of confirmed flu cases to 260, although the WHO can verify only 99, of which 12 were confirmed deaths.

José Ángel Córdova, the Health Minister, said that the newly confirmed cases showed signs of slowing, but Mexico City, usually a metropolis of 20 million inhabitants, lay seemingly abandoned. Government offices and businesses deemed non-essential have been ordered to close, although the country’s leading industry association said it would keep factories open.

Britain, the US and many other countries have advised against non-essential travel to Mexico. Many tourists were hurrying to leave, crowding airports.

The WHO said that it would stop referring to swine flu after concerns from the agriculture industry that it was confusing consumers and encouraging some countries to order the slaughter of pigs. The virus — a genetic mix of animal and human strains — should be renamed as “H1N1 influenza A”, it said.

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