April 26, 2009

Swine flu epidemic fear grows

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Governments around the world rushed on Sunday to check the spread of a new type of swine flu that has killed up to 81 people in Mexico and infected around a dozen in the United States.

Mexicans huddled in their homes while U.S. hospitals tracked patients with flu symptoms and other countries imposed health checks at airports as the World Health Organisation warned the virus had the potential to become a pandemic.
The epidemic has snowballed into a monster headache for Mexico, already grappling with a violent drug war and economic slowdown, and has quickly become one of the biggest global health scares in years.

Mexico's tourism and retail sectors could be badly hit. A new pandemic would deal a major blow to a world economy already suffering its worst recession in decades.

In New Zealand, 10 pupils from an Auckland school party that had returned from Mexico were being treated for influenza symptoms in what health authorities said was a likely case of swine flu, although they added none was seriously ill.

The WHO declared the flu a "public health event of international concern." WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan urged greater worldwide surveillance for any unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness.

"(We are) monitoring minute by minute the evolution of this problem across the whole country," Mexican President Felipe Calderon said as health officials counted suspected infections in six states from the tropical south to the northern border.

While all the deaths so far have been in Mexico, the flu is spreading in the United States. Eleven cases were confirmed in California, Kansas and Texas, and eight schoolchildren in New York City caught a type A influenza virus that health officials say is likely to be the swine flu.

The new flu strain, a mixture of various swine, bird and human viruses, poses the biggest risk of a large-scale pandemic since avian flu surfaced in 1997, killing several hundred people. A 1968 "Hong Kong" flu pandemic killed about 1 million people globally.

New flu strains can spread quickly because no one has natural immunity to them and a vaccine takes months to develop.


Countries across Asia, which have had to grapple with deadly viruses like H5N1 bird flu and SARS in recent years, snapped into action. At airports and other border checkpoints in Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan, officials screened travellers for any flu-like symptoms.

In China, officials assured people that conventional measures in place were adequate to contain the new threat.

"The measures we've been taking against bird flu are effective for this new type of disease," said Wang Jing of the China Inspection and Quarantine Science Research Institute, in comments carried by state media.

Argentina declared a health alert, requiring anyone arriving on flights from Mexico to advise if they had flu-like symptoms.

Russia imposed curbs on meat imports from Mexico, some U.S. states and the Caribbean, while the United Arab Emirates said it was considering similar action.

In Brussels, the European Commission said no cases of the new swine flu had been reported so far in Europe. "Until now we have no reported cases in Europe. We are following very closely the situation as it evolves," a spokeswoman for the European Union executive said.

In France, two people returning from Mexico who had flu-like symptoms were being tested, French public health director Didier Houssin told RTL radio.

A French health ministry spokeswoman said there were two unconfirmed cases but declined to give further details.

A British Airways cabin crew member was taken to hospital in London after developing flu-like symptoms on a flight from Mexico, but tests later cleared him of swine flu.

Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said the swine flu had killed at least 20 and possibly as many as 81 people in Mexico, and more than 1,300 people were being tested for suspected infection. Most of the dead were aged 25 to 45, a worrying sign because a hallmark of past pandemics has been high fatalities among healthy young adults.


In the crowded Mexican capital of 20 million people museums were closed and public events scrapped, from concerts to a running race. Sunday soccer matches were closed to spectators.

Locals hoarded bottled water and canned food, churchgoers were told to stay home and follow Sunday services on television and bewildered tourists were made to wear surgical face masks.

"It's all a bit alarming because as a tourist you don't know if you're going to be allowed home. It's worrying because there's not much information," said 29-year-old Sandy Itriago, waiting at a tour bus stop with her parents.

Nightclubs closed on Saturday night along with stadiums and cinemas. At least one open bar stationed medics at its doors to check clients' throats and take their temperatures.

All schools in the city, Mexico State and San Luis Potosi were closed until May 6 and some companies planned to have employees work from home.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Jonathan Lynn in Geneva, Darren Ennis in Brussels, Maggie Fox in Washington, Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong and Mica Rosenberg and Michael O'Boyle in Mexico City; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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