Fifty people across Britain were being tested for swine flu last night as at least 6,000 UK holidaymakers were on standby to leave Mexico, amid increasing fears over a possible global pandemic.
Flights to popular tourist destinations including Cancun were cancelled after it was confirmed that a couple from Scotland had become the first Britons to officially fall ill with the virus. Iain and Dawn Askham, who contracted the condition while on their honeymoon, were said to be recovering well and showing only mild symptoms of the new strain.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a warning when a senior official pointed out that the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed more than 50 million people, began as an apparently mild virus.
Last night, the Department of Health (DH) confirmed that leaflets about the virus would be distributed to households across the UK next week. The Government is also reported to have placed an order on 32 million face masks.
Meanwhile in the US, Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.5bn for a supplemental spending plan to build drug stockpiles and monitor cases.
"We have to be mindful and respectful of the fact that influenza moves in ways we cannot predict," said Dr Keiji Fukuda, assistant director general at the UN health agency. He warned that the current strain could return. Referring to the H5N1 bird flu epidemic, which has killed more than 250 people since 2003, Dr Fukuda added: "Look at avian influenza. If you look at that virus you can see it disappears for a while and then reappears with a vengeance."
Among the 64 confirmed cases in the US were 45 patients in New York, 10 in California, six in Texas, two in Kansas and one in Ohio. In a worrying sign of small-scale outbreaks outside Mexico, some students at a New York school who tested positive for swine flu after a trip to Mexico seem to have passed it on, while two others have been hospitalised.
Canada said it had six cases, while in New Zealand, three students who recently travelled to Mexico were confirmed to have contracted the virus. Israel and Spain reported two cases each.
The EU said patients were under observation in Denmark, Sweden, Greece, the Czech Republic, Germany and Italy. Tests were being carried out on patients in countries including Brazil, Guatemala, Peru, Australia and South Korea.
The Foreign Office did not know how many Britons were in Mexico – estimates put the total at 10,000 – and warned against all but essential travel there. First Choice and Thomson cancelled all flights to the resorts of Cancun and Cozumel until 8 May. The operators said they had about 3,000 customers in Mexico. Those wishing to cut short their holidays were added to outgoing flights.
British health officials sought to reassure the public while the Prime Minister, currently visiting Poland, took part in a teleconference with the Health Secretary Alan Johnson for a meeting of the Cobra emergencies committee. Gordon Brown said the UK was "among the best prepared countries in the world" to cope.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the WHO, warned that up to 30 million Britons could be affected should the situation continue to escalate: "We might expect up to 30 or 40 per cent of the population to become ill in the next six months if this truly turns into a pandemic."
The Askhams did not show symptoms until three days after their return from Mexico, during which time Mrs Askham went to her job at Boots where some staff have been told to stay at home. The couple from Polmont, near Falkirk, were recovering in an isolation unit at Monklands Hospital in Airdrie, Lanarkshire. "We are delighted that they continue to make good progress and they remain in good spirits," said the couple's parents, in a statement.
"They were quite shocked that the result was positive for swine flu but are relieved that their symptoms have been very mild."
Nine people who had been in contact with the Askhams have developed "mild, cold-like" symptoms and are being tested for swine flu. Another 14 cases in Scotland – including another honeymoon couple – were being investigated. Some passengers who shared the flight home expressed dismay that the authorities had not tracked them down.
Amid false alarms and a 20 per cent increase in the number of callers to NHS Direct, health officials insisted there would be no running tally of suspected cases. Mexican pupils at Stonyhurst College, a Catholic boarding school school in Clitheroe, Lancashire, have been tested. None has so far shown any symptoms.
One couple described cutting short their Mexican holiday by two weeks. As they returned to Heathrow last night, Karen Whitehouse, 22, and boyfriend Alex Henney, 31, said they panicked. "If you sneezed in the street, people looked like they wanted to get away," said Ms Whitehouse. "It was scary being in a city of 20 million people that was completely dead."
The travel website Expedia stopped accepting bookings for Mexico flights and hotels yesterday afternoon.
Even the most exclusive hotels in Mexico City showed signs of panic, cutting their rates. The four-star Embassy Suites hotel, part of the Hilton group, almost halved its prices. Instead of the usual rate of US$209 (£142) for a king-size double room, the hotel offered it for $129, including breakfast and free cocktails.
The six billion spam emails
Spam emailers have exploited fears over an impending pandemic to send up to six billion rogue emails to advertise counterfeit drugs in the hope of securing credit card data.
Security experts at McAfee Inc said the names of celebrities, such as Madonna, were being added to subject lines to draw attention to spam which would otherwise be avoided.
Greg Day, a security analyst at McAfee, added that those who ordered the fake drugs would be unlikely to get the product they expected.
The British manufacturer 3M, which makes face masks that help to prevent airborne diseases from spreading, is having new production facilities delivered and installed to help them cope with "sudden surges in demand".
Meanwhile, Helios Homoeopathy [sic], a British homeopathy company, has responded to interest in its products by posting a link on their website recommending remedies.
A list of homeopathic cures detailed symptoms and encouraged sufferers to see if their own matched up. "Constitutional treatment is the best way for anyone to strengthen the immune system," it states.
The Helios managing director, John Morgan, said: "We're simply responding to the huge number of calls received. We've not had independent trials to see whether these remedies work for Swine flu. But we're not saying they are a cure; we're simply saying they will help the body respond to the virus."