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Israel and New Zealand latest countries hit by swine flu

  The new strain of swine flu virus that has killed 149 people in Mexico spread to more countries on Tuesday, raising the spectre of a pandemic and hurting financial markets and airline stocks.

The World Health Organization has raised its alert level to indicate a significantly increased risk of pandemic, or global outbreak of serious illness, but is not recommending travel restriction and border closures.

But the United States and the European Union advised their citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Mexico, and companies adopted travel restrictions for their staff in response to a potential flu pandemic, which would be the first in 40 years.

The flu outbreak came at a bad time for airlines, whose shares continued to fall on fears that the drop in traffic could be at least as bad as that of the 2003 SARS crisis.

The virus is not caught from eating pig meat products but several countries, led by Russia and China, banned US pork imports. The EU said it has no plans to restrict trade with Mexico because of the flu outbreak.

Health officials confirmed cases in New Zealand and Israel on Tuesday. No one has died outside Mexico but there were also confirmed cases in the United States, Canada, Britain and Spain.

Possible cases were reported in Australia, France, Germany, Sweden, Norway and South Korea. New Zealand said three of 11 people in a school group that visited Mexico had tested positive and it expected the others would also turn out to be positive when tests were completed.

The Israeli carrier, a 26-year-old man, had also recently returned from Mexico. A honeymooning Scottish couple who recently returned from Cancun, one of Mexico’s biggest beach resorts, were the first people in Britain to test positive for swine flu.

One of the mysteries of the current outbreak is why all cases outside Mexico have so far been relatively mild. The Geneva-based WHO said the flu was being spread by human-to-human transmission but it did not advise any travel restrictions or border closures. (Reuters)