SYDNEY (AFP) — Australia's swine flu cases jumped by nearly a third to pass 400 on Monday, making it the Asia-Pacific region's worst-hit country and intensifying a major health emergency.
Confirmed cases leapt from 302 early in the day to 401, surpassing Japan as Asia's swine flu hotspot and handing Australia the fourth largest number of confirmed cases in the world behind the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Health Minister Nicola Roxon said the situation was being assessed hourly as Australia considers ramping up its emergency measures from the 'contain' to the 'sustain' phase.
"It is inevitable that we will need at some point to consider changing that phase nationally and it is an issue that's being discussed closely by the chief medical officer, the health prevention committees and others," she said.
"It will continue to be assessed hourly as well as daily whether there are different steps that should be taken," she added.
Fourteen schools across the country were closed and Roxon said 5,000 face masks were being sent to the state of Victoria, which has 306 cases, from the national stockpile.
Chief medical officer Jim Bishop said many people who suspect they have swine flu may be advised to stay at home and only at-risk groups, including those with asthma and respiratory problems, told to visit their doctor.
"As we move along in this marathon race, what we will need to do is obviously identify those people that we're concerned about," Bishop said.
"If there is large numbers involved, we want to make sure the system is looking after people we most want to look after."
Australia's swine flu cases have soared from just 18 last Monday, when infected passengers were allowed to leave a luxury cruise liner in Sydney and disperse into the community.
Another 2,000 passengers who then boarded the giant "Pacific Dawn," which was carrying three infected crew, were finally allowed to disembark here on Monday after being cleared of the disease.
The vessel was turned away from the picturesque Whitsunday Islands and city of Cairns in Australia's northeast last week before 150 Queensland state residents were let off in Brisbane under emergency decree.
"I'm very annoyed that they were allowed to set sail knowing that they may have had swine flu on board," said Carolyn Rogers of Penrith, near Sydney, whose parents were on the ship.
"They knew and they still allowed them to go on."
Painter Saul Leano, 36, admitted "it wasn't the best trip" after spending seven straight days at sea.
"We were a bit angry we were told to leave the harbour and sail in the first place. We could have been quarantined here," he said.
Seventeen-year-old student Claire Gardner said she was shocked when she read news reports about the cruise, although many passengers were mollified by a cash-and-voucher refund by Carnival Australia, owner of P&O Cruises.
"I went on the Internet and saw all these articles," Gardner said. "This morning there were four helicopters up there, which was a bit nerve-wracking."
Carnival Australia chief executive Ann Sherry denied it had been a "nightmare" trip, insisting the passengers were well looked after and saying the firm had had zero cancellations.
"The groups of passengers I've just spoken to have said they've been treated well. They've had 75 percent of their fare back and a further-cruises credit of 25 percent," she said.
Figures released Friday by the World Health Organization showed that swine flu had infected 15,510 people in 53 countries since it was first sprang to prominence last month in Mexico and the United States.
Until Monday, Japan had been Asia's worst affected country with 380 cases, according to the latest official figures there.
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