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WASHINGTON - The world's governments raced to avoid both a pandemic and global hysteria Sunday as more possible swine flu cases surfaced from Canada to New Zealand and the United States declared a public health emergency. "It's not a time to panic," the White House said.
Mexico, the outbreak's epicenter with up to 86 suspected deaths, canceled some church services and closed markets and restaurants. Few people ventured onto the streets, and some wore face masks. Canada became the third country to confirm cases, in six people, including some students who - like some New York City spring-breakers - got mildly ill in Mexico. Countries across Asia promised to quarantine feverish travelers returning from flu-affected areas.
The U.S. declared the health emergency so it could ship roughly 12 million doses of flu-fighting medications from a federal stockpile to states in case they eventually need them - although, with 20 confirmed cases of people recovering easily, they don't appear to for now.
Make no mistake: There is not a global pandemic - at least not yet. It's not clear how many people truly have this particular strain, or why all countries but Mexico are seeing mild disease. Nor is it clear if the new virus spreads easily, one milestone that distinguishes a bad flu from a global crisis. But waiting to take protective steps until after a pandemic is declared would be too late.
"We do think this will continue to spread but we are taking aggressive actions to minimize the impact on people's health," said Dr. Richard Besser, acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
President Barack Obama's administration sought to look both calm and in command, striking a balance between informing Americans without panicking them. Obama himself was playing golf while U.S. officials used a White House news conference to compare the emergency declaration with preparing for an approaching hurricane.
"Really, that's what we're doing right now. We're preparing in an environment where we really don't know ultimately what the size or seriousness of this outbreak is going to be," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters.
Earlier, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the outbreak was serious, but that the public should know "it's not a time to panic." He told NBC's "Meet the Press" that Obama was getting updates "every few hours" on the situation.
In Mexico, soldiers handed out 6 million surgical-style masks to deal with a deadly flu strain that officials say may have sickened 1,400 people since April 13. Special laboratory tests to confirm how many died from it - 22 have been confirmed so far out of 86 suspected deaths - are taking time.
The World Health Organization and the U.S. were following a playbook of precautions developed over the past five years to prepare for the next super-flu. The WHO on Saturday asked all countries to step up detection of this strain of A/H1N1 swine flu and will reconsider on Tuesday whether to raise the pandemic threat level, in turn triggering additional actions.
A potential pandemic virus is defined, among other things, as a novel strain that's not easily treated. This new strain can be treated with Tamiflu and Relenza, but not two older flu drugs. Also, the WHO wants to know if it's easily spread from one person to a second who then spreads it again - something U.S. officials suspect and are investigating.
There is no vaccine against swine flu, but the CDC has taken the initial step necessary for producing one - creating a seed stock of the virus - should authorities decide that's necessary. Last winter's flu shot offers no cross-protection to the new virus, although it's possible that older people exposed to various Type A flu strains in the past may have some immunity, CDC officials said Sunday.
Worldwide, attention focused sharply on travelers.
"It was acquired in Mexico, brought home and spread," Nova Scotia's chief public health officer, Dr. Robert Strang, said of Canada's first four confirmed cases.
China, Russia and Taiwan began planning to quarantine travelers arriving from flu-affected areas if they have symptoms. Italy, Poland and Venezuela advised citizens to postpone travel to affected parts of Mexico and the U.S.