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Swine flu fear: a global epidemic

Jorge Guzman, whose son, Jorge, 23, died Saturday of the swine flu, gets a hug, as does his wife, Maria Juarez, in white hat, at Mexico’s National Institute for Respiratory Illnesses in Mexico City.

Associated Press

Jorge Guzman, whose son, Jorge, 23, died Saturday of the swine flu, gets a hug, as does his wife, Maria Juarez, in white hat, at Mexico’s National Institute for Respiratory Illnesses in Mexico City.

MEXICO CITY — International officials warned Saturday that a swine flu outbreak could become a global epidemic as new cases were reported north and south of the border.

The Mexican government indicated that the outbreak was more severe than originally acknowledged, announcing Saturday that more than 1,300 people are believed to have been infected. The virus, which the top official of the World Health Organization said had "pandemic potential," is now suspected in the deaths of 81 people in Mexico.

The Mexican government gave itself extraordinary powers to be able to search private homes for sick people, intercept them on public transport, quarantine them and force them to have treatment.

In the United States, health officials reported that at least eight students at a private high school in New York City had "probable" swine flu, and confirmed two new cases in Kansas and one in California, bringing the total number of confirmed U.S. cases to 11. All recovered or are recovering; at least two were hospitalized.

The director general of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, said the "situation is evolving quickly." The WHO asked countries around the world to step up reporting and surveillance of the disease and implement a coordinated response to contain it.

"This is a serious situation that must be watched very carefully," Chan said. "It has pandemic potential."

The virus — a combination of swine, bird and human influenza — nearly brought Mexico City to a halt. Normally congested downtown streets were almost empty. Bars and schools have been closed, and Catholic Masses were canceled. Two big soccer matches today will be played in front of TV cameras, but with no live crowds.

"This is a serious moment for the nation," President Felipe Calderon said.

Soldiers and health workers patrolled airports and bus stations, and tried to corral people who may be infected, as it became clearer that the government may have been slow to respond to the outbreak.

Officials noticed a threefold spike in flu cases in late March and early April, but they thought it was a late rebound in the normal flu season. The first recorded death occurred in southern Oaxaca state April 13, but testing did not alert doctors to the new strain until samples were sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on April 18.

The U.S. Embassy said the United States has not imposed travel constraints to and from Mexico but was suspending the processing of visas and other services through Wednesday to avoid creating crowds.

But with confirmed swine flu cases in at least six states, the efforts seemed unlikely to stop the spread of the disease. Particularly difficult in a metropolis as crowded as Mexico City was the embassy's advice that maintaining "a distance of at least 6 feet from other persons may decrease the risk of exposure."

The deaths are of particular concern to authorities because the victims have tended to be young, healthy adults, whereas garden-variety flu mostly kills infants and the elderly.

Asian officials were on alert today, with some checking passengers and pork products from Mexico. At Tokyo's busy Narita airport, a device at the gate for flights from Mexico measured passengers' temperatures.

President Barack Obama's health is fine a little more than a week after he traveled to Mexico, the White House said Saturday. Mexican museum director Felipe Solis died last week, days after accompanying Obama on a museum tour on April 16. Health Secretary Jose Cordova said Solis had a pre-existing illness and died of pneumonia unrelated to flu.

Flu spreads

Mexico: More than 1,300 cases recorded since April 13; as many as 81 dead. More than 500 concerts, sporting events and other gatherings were canceled Saturday in Mexico City, a city of 20 million. School closures in the capital and other states with flu outbreaks were extended until May 6.

Texas: Two cases, both 16-year-old students.

California: Seven cases. The latest case was a 35-year-old woman who was hospitalized but recovered. The woman had no known contact with other cases.

Kansas: At least two mild confirmed cases, a married couple; the husband had recently visited Mexico.

New York: Eight suspected cases among students at a New York City high school. In all, New York health officials said more than 100 students at St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens had come down with a fever, sore throat and other symptoms in the past few days; eight had confirmed influenza type A, indicating probable cases of swine flu. The students had just returned from spring break, and some may have traveled to Mexico. All symptoms were mild; no students have been hospitalized. Investigators were also testing children who fell ill at a day care center in the Bronx.

Florida in clear

"We have no cases in Florida," Department of Health spokeswoman Susan Smith said Saturday.

No natural immunity

This swine flu and regular flu can have similar symptoms — mostly fever, cough and sore throat, though some of the U.S. victims also experienced vomiting and diarrhea. But unlike with regular flu, people don't have natural immunity to a virus that includes animal genes. This strain presents itself like other swine flus, but no U.S. case appears to involve direct contact with pigs.

Can I get a vaccine?

A "seed stock" genetically matched to the new swine flu virus has been created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If the government decides that vaccine production is necessary, manufacturers would need that stock to get started. The CDC warned that it would take many months before enough doses for all Americans are ready.

When a pandemic?

WHO officials were discussing whether to declare an international public health emergency, a move that could involve travel advisories and the closing of borders. It has three criteria necessary for a global epidemic to occur: The virus is able to infect people, it can readily spread person-to-person, and the global population has no immunity to it.

Swine flu fear: a global epidemic 04/25/09 [Last modified: Sunday, April 26, 2009 12:16am]
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