WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Swine flu has driven up the price of horse meat in Mongolia, closed schools across Afghanistan and Ukraine and sparked a quarrel over whether detainees at a U.S. base in Cuba should be vaccinated.
As infections accelerated across the northern half of the world, Saudi authorities approved a vaccine ahead of the annual haj pilgrimage and U.S. members of Congress proposed legislation to force employers to pay for sick leave.
The pandemic H1N1 virus has infected millions globally, with more than 5,000 documented deaths and likely far more.
A study published Tuesday added to the growing body of knowledge about the virus, confirming that while it rarely infects people over 65, once it does it is as deadly to them as seasonal flu is.
In Mongolia, the government closed kindergartens, extended a holiday for secondary schools and cancelled sports and cultural events, the English-language UB Post newspaper reported.
Worried Mongolians spread the rumour that eating horse meat might stave off the disease, pushing up prices.
In South Korea, where 42 deaths have been confirmed, health authorities raised the epidemic alert to the highest level. Nearly 400 schools have closed voluntarily.
The Saudi Food and Drug Authority approved one of GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccines for the H1N1 swine flu virus on Tuesday, as the kingdom gears up for more than 2 million visitors at next month’s haj, the annual pilgrimage undertaken by many observant Muslims.
Afghanistan declared a health emergency and ordered schools closed for three weeks. The government has also advised the public against gatherings such as weddings in enclosed areas.
“There is substantial influenza activity and we would expect to see more. Certainly the indications are that this will become something quite widespread across the northern hemisphere temperate zones as we go forward through the late autumn and winter,” the World Health Organization’s Gregory Hartl said.
In the United States, a member of Congress proposed emergency legislation that would require employers who tell workers to stay home when they are sick to give them paid time off for up to five days.
Health officials have been urging anyone with flu-like symptoms such as cough and fever to stay home, but up to 50 million Americans risk a day’s pay and perhaps their jobs if they do.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that 11 percent of people who were hospitalized in California died, but among people 50 and older, 18 to 20 percent died.
The most common causes of death were viral pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome, the researchers found, and as with other studies, obesity appeared to play a significant role in the severity of disease.
Americans have been struggling to find H1N1 vaccines, with only 30 million doses available to protect a population 10 times that size.
The White House denied that any H1N1 flu vaccine is now going to terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba after members of Congress and some media commentators complained, but a Department of Defence spokesman said the vaccine would be offered to about 200 Guantanamo detainees.
After months of talks, the largest U.S. nurses union and California’s biggest nonprofit healthcare chain agreed to safeguards that the nurses believe may serve as a national model for curbing H1N1 swine flu in hospitals and averting a one-day strike threatened by thousands of registered nurses at more than 30 hospitals.
Swine flu fears helped fuel strong sales of disinfecting products. Clorox Co posted a bigger-than-expected quarterly profit and raised its full-year forecast.
“H1N1, that’s the name of the game,” said UBS analyst Nik Modi. “That’s what really helped them with the upside.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture found the pandemic H1N1 influenza virus in a commercial swine herd in Indiana as federal agencies stepped up their hunt for the virus in pigs. It has been found in herds in Canada and Britain as well.
With additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul,StephanieNebehay in Geneva, Julie Steenhuysen and Jessica Wohl in Chicago, Steve Gorman in Los Angleles, Souhail Karam in Riyadh, Jargal Byambasuren and Lucy Hornby in Ulan Bator; Editing by Cynthia Osterman