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MEXICO: Schools Closed Nationwide Due to Flu Epidemic

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Apr 27 2009 (IPS) - The deadly new influenza strain that originated in Mexico has led to the closure of schools, universities, museums, libraries, cinemas, theatres and churches here, while it continues to spread to other countries.

So far there is insufficient data to predict when the outbreak will ease or whether the measures adopted to fight its spread will be effective, experts say.

By Monday, four days after a health emergency was declared in Mexico, the number of people killed by the virus had climbed to 149, out of a total of around 2,600 cases, mainly in the capital.

The government of President Felipe Calderón expanded the closure of schools, which was only in effect in the capital and the states of Mexico and San Luis Potosí, to the entire country.

If the disease does not stop spreading, Mexico will close its borders, Health Minister José Córdova warned.

On the streets of Mexico City, the use of surgical face masks is becoming widespread, after news and alerts about the swine flu epidemic multiplied over the weekend. On the bus taken by IPS on Monday, most people were wearing masks, which were handed out for free by government employees at different points around the city.

“This is like a bad movie; God willing it will end soon,” said Marisol Menéndez, an office worker riding the bus.

“They should give us the day off; our kids are not in school and are home alone,” said her friend Margarita Ortiz.

The Mexican capital, a city of 20 million, was unusually quiet on Monday. Many restaurants were closed, and some offices were working at half-steam, in line with instructions from the Labour Ministry, which asked bosses and owners to be lax with regard to absenteeism, especially for workers who may have flu symptoms or who have to stay home to take care of their children.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that the epidemic that broke out in Mexico is a new subtype of swine influenza A/H1N1 “not previously detected in swine or humans,” with characteristics of avian and human flu viruses.

The WHO Emergency Committee meeting in Belgium reported Monday that it had raised its pandemic alert level from phase 3 (low risk of a pandemic) to phase 4 (person-to-person transmission in a limited geographical area), on a scale of 6.

The 15-member committee had planned to meet on Tuesday, but after the first case of swine flu was reported in Spain, it moved the meeting forward to Monday.

WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said in Brussels that “it is a rapidly evolving situation,” and WHO Director General Margaret Chan said it has “pandemic potential”.

The countries affected by the virus – but without any fatal cases – include the United States, with 40 confirmed cases, Canada with six cases and Brazil and Spain with one each. Suspected cases are also being tested in Colombia, France, Israel, Italy and the United Kingdom.

A number of countries are on the alert and are following disease prevention protocols.

It is too early to know whether the disease is still on an upward spiral, Dr. Mario Castellas, an infectious disease specialist at a private hospital in the capital, told IPS. He said two or more incubation periods (five to seven days in this case) are needed before any projections can be made.

“It’ll take time, around five or six more days, to know if we have managed to curb the epidemic at least in Mexico,” said Castellas.

Local health authorities say the new virus is not fatal if the patient receives treatment promptly, within 24 to 48 hours of the appearance of the first symptoms

Despite that clarification, rumours are spreading in Mexico City that the flu kills within five hours of infection.

Radio and TV stations are repeatedly broadcasting government messages urging people not to shake hands or greet each other with a kiss, and to wear face masks, seek medical treatment at the first sign of symptoms, and stay away from crowded places.

A 2008 Health Ministry report on Mexico’s response to a flu pandemic warned that the conditions were in place for a pandemic to occur at any time.

The report was drawn up to prepare the country for the hypothetical scenario of an influenza pandemic, but with the avian flu epidemic in mind.

The study says that in a moderate scenario, 15 percent of the population would fall sick and the outbreak would have a cost equivalent to 0.5 percent of GDP; in a moderately severe scenario, 25 percent of the population would be infected, at a cost of one percent of GDP; and in a severe scenario, 35 percent of the population would catch the disease, with an economic impact of 3.7 percent of GDP.

The origin of the new strain of swine flu is still unknown. Spokespersons for Veratect Corporation, a U.S. company that monitors disease outbreaks worldwide, told the Mexican newspaper Reforma that it was the first to detect the current outbreak, identifying the first case on Mar. 30 at a pig factory farm in a rural area near the town of Perote in the Gulf of Mexico state of Veracruz.

According to the source, the factory farm is owned by Granjas Carroll, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods.

But company spokeswoman Jazmín Jiménez told IPS by telephone that the report was “totally false.”

“We have 970 employees, and not one of them, and none of their family members, have the flu or anything like it,” she told IPS.

Cases of respiratory infections, “but not the flu,” occurred in late March in La Gloria, a neighbourhood located eight km from the factory farms, but they were due to a lack of sanitation and clean water in the area “according to what the health authorities told us,” said the spokeswoman.

“There is nothing strange here, and we haven’t heard of anyone who is sick,” Irene Argüello, who works in a construction materials store in Perote, told IPS by phone. “I don’t know why they are saying the disease started here; we would be in a state of emergency if that were true.”

Health Minister Córdova said the virus may have emerged somewhere in Europe or Asia, “given that part of its genome matches the common pig,” before it mutated and transferred to humans.

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