World Battles to Curb Deadly Mexico Flu Strain

By Catherine Bremer | April 28, 2009

World governments and businesses announced new steps on Tuesday to try to slow the spread of a new strain of swine flu that has killed up to 149 people in Mexico and threatens to become a pandemic.

The World Health Organization has raised its alert level to phase 4, indicating a significantly increased risk of pandemic. Global markets tumbled for a second day on Tuesday on fears the outbreak could snuff out fragile signs of economic recovery.

No one has died outside Mexico but more than 50 infected people have been found in the United States, six in Canada and three across the Atlantic in Spain and Scotland. Possible cases were being tested as far away as Norway and South Korea.

Antiviral medicine is effective against the swine flu bug if used early enough but no one is naturally immune.

“This can be interpreted as a significant step towards pandemic influenza, but also it is a phase which says that we are not there yet,” acting WHO Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda told a teleconference on Monday, referring to the WHO’s alert level change.

Asian and European stock markets retreated, with airline stocks taking another hit and drug makers posting gains. The yen climbed to a seven-week high against the euro and a one-month high versus the dollar as investors cut their exposure to riskier currencies. Oil dropped 2 percent, sinking below $50 a barrel.

Britain, France, Germany and the United States issued travel alerts for Mexico, which relies on tourism as its No. 3 source of foreign currency. Japan advised its citizens in Mexico to consider returning home soon, saying they might find themselves unable to leave and not be able to get adequate medical care.

China promised to disclose any cases promptly. State-run newspapers urged officials to be open and avoid the kind of cover-up that brought panic during the SARS epidemic in 2003.

Asian companies stepped up their precautions, restricting travel and advising staff on how to protect themselves against the virus, but stopping short of implementing stringent measures.

“We’re limiting all non-essential travel to places that have seen cases of swine flu, and staff members returning from those areas will be quarantined for a period of time before being allowed to enter our factories and facilities,” said Edmund Ding, a spokesman at Taiwanese electronics parts firm Hon Hai, which has several factories in Mexico. “If any government calls for factories to be closed to stop the spread of the infection, we will of course comply with that.”

Experts say that while it is impossible to stop the spread of the disease, efforts to slow its progression around the world could buy crucial time for countries to procure essential drugs.

Yuen Kwok-yung, a leading microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said the key things to slow the disease were “border control and hygiene”.

The last flu pandemic, a Hong Kong flu outbreak in 1968, killed about one million people around the world.

In Mexico, epicenter of the latest outbreak, people from company directors to deliverymen on tricycles wore face masks while airlines checked passengers for flu symptoms.

“We will defeat this threat,” Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard vowed late on Monday as several hundred people suspected to be suffering from the flu were treated in hospitals and life in the normally hectic capital took on an eerie hush.

Mexico City shut restaurants, bars, cinemas, stadiums, gyms and some government offices to stop the infection from spreading.

Unsure how worried they should be, people stocked up on food, drinking water, rental movies and surgical masks. Some opted to work from home. Schools were closed until May 6.

Facing damage to tourism and trade — key motors of an economy that is already tipping into recession from the global downturn — Mexico said it would not order a mass closure of businesses to try to contain the infection.

“Economic activity must continue,” Labor Minister Javier Lozano told a news conference on Monday evening.

Worldwide, seasonal flu kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people in an average year. The new strain is worrying as it spreads rapidly between humans and there is no vaccine for it.

Most of the fatalities have been people aged between 20 and 50, an ominous sign, because a hallmark of past pandemics has been the high rate of fatalities among young adults.

Mexican media have speculated the flu may have originated at a pig farm in the tropical southeastern state of Veracruz.

But Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said the first case that alerted authorities to a possible rogue flu strain was in the southern state of Oaxaca. He said it was too early to identify the cause or geographical source of the virus.

Officials say the virus is not caught from eating pig meat products but several countries banned U.S. pork imports.

The heavy volume of visitors to Mexico only underscores the risk of contagion. Airlines fly more than 1 million passenger seats in and out of Mexico’s international airport each week.

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