WASHINGTON — Amid warnings about travel to Mexico or the U.S., President Barack Obama worked Monday to assure the nation — and perhaps the world — that an outbreak of swine flu is a cause for concern but not alarm.
“We are closely monitoring the emerging cases of swine flu in the United States,” Obama said. “And this is, obviously, a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert. But it’s not a cause for alarm.”
In Mexico, the suspected death toll from the flu reached 159 on Monday; the confirmed total stood at 20. As Mexico City all but shut down out of fear of spreading the illness, the U.S. closed its Embassy to non-essential business for the rest of the week and issued a new travel advisory urging Americans to avoid non-essential travel to the country.
In the U.S., there were 48 cases of swine flu diagnosed as of Monday afternoon, though none of them fatal, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. They included cases in New York, California, Kansas, Texas and Ohio.
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United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the outbreak could lead to a pandemic — in which the illness spreads around the world.
“We are concerned that this virus could cause a new influenza pandemic. It could be mild in its effect or potentially be severe,” Ban said. “We don’t know yet which way it will go, but we are concerned that in Mexico most of those who died were young and healthy adults.”
The World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert level from 3 to 4 on a 6-phase scale. The new alert level means there’s been a sustained spread of the illness from human to human in at least one country.
The U.S. government, perhaps mindful of the complaints about its response following Hurricane Katrina, strived to show that it was doing all it could to prepare for a crisis. Among the measures: sending millions of doses of flu-fighting medicine to affected states.
“We are proceeding as if we are preparatory to a full pandemic,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
The health commissioner of the European Union urged Europeans to postpone nonessential travel to parts of Mexico and the U.S. where the flu has been detected.
The statement from Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou toned down an earlier warning against traveling anywhere in North America. “I meant a travel advisory — not a travel ban — for travel to Mexico City and those states in the United States where we have outbreaks,” he said.
The White House and the CDC downplayed such warnings, however.
“At this point I would not put a travel restriction or recommendation against coming to the United States,” said Richard Besser, the acting head of the CDC in Atlanta.
White House aides said the government’s efforts weren’t hindered by the fact that the Department of Health and Human Services lacks a secretary. The Senate hasn’t yet confirmed Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that the absence of an HHS secretary made no difference to the government’s ability to monitor the outbreaks or make available antiviral medicine in case it’s needed.
Obama said the outbreak underscored the broader topic of a long-planned speech to the National Academy of Sciences: a pitch to spend money equal to 3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product on science, in what he called the “largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history.”
Aides said later the pledge to boost spending to 3 percent of GDP — from the current 2.66 percent — would add about $47 billion a year eventually. White House officials said it’s unclear when the 3 percent goal will be reached.
Obama proposed at least $265 billion in new spending over a multi-year timetable, including $75 billion over 10 years to make permanent a tax credit for research and experimentation.