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Spectre of pandemic

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Source: smh

Spectre of pandemic

* Marc Lacey and Donald McNeil Mexico City
* April 26, 2009

MEXICAN officials were scrambling yesterday to control a swine flu outbreak that has killed as many as 61 people and infected possibly hundreds more in recent weeks.

They have closed schools for millions of students in and around the capital and shut museums. People with flu symptoms were urged to stay at home and wear a mask over mouth and nose. Mexico prepares to stop deadly flu

The Mexican government closes museums and hands out masks to the public in an attempt to stop a deadly flu virus from spreading.

Officials in the US said eight non-fatal cases of the respiratory illness had been detected in California and Texas.

"We're dealing with a new flu virus that constitutes a respiratory epidemic that so far is controllable," Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said after a meeting with President Felipe Calderon and other top officials to come up with an action plan.

Dr Cordova said the virus had mutated from a strain that infected pigs. The new strain contains gene sequences from North American and Eurasian swine flus, North American bird flu and North American human flu, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most of Mexico's dead were young, healthy adults, and none was aged older than 60 or or younger than three, the World Health Organisation said.

This has alarmed health officials because it is usually infants or bedridden older people who are claimed by seasonal flu outbreaks. Pandemic flus - like the 1918 Spanish flu and the 1957 and 1968 pandemics - often strike young, healthy people the hardest.

Mexican officials promised a huge immunisation campaign in the capital this week. They urged people to avoid large gatherings and stop shaking hands or greeting women with a kiss on the cheek.

Mexico City officials shut museums and other cultural venues, and advised people not to attend movies or public events.

Seven million students, from kindergarten to college, were kept from classes in Mexico City and the neighbouring state of Mexico on Friday in what local news organisations called the first citywide closure of schools since a powerful earthquake in 1985.

The WHO planned to consider raising the worl4/26/2009 11:25PMd pandemic flu alert from 3 to 4.

Such a high alert level - meaning sustained transmission between humans of a new virus - has not been reached in recent years, even during the H5N1 avian flu.

It would "raise the hackles of everyone around the world", said Dr Robert Webster, a flu expert at St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis.

Mexico's flu season is usually over by now but health officials have noticed a spike in flu cases since mid-March. The WHO said there had been 800 cases in Mexico in recent weeks - including the 61 deaths - of a flu-like illness that appeared to be more serious than the seasonal flu. Mexican officials said there were 943 possible cases.

Only a small number had been confirmed as cases of the new H1N1 swine flu, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said. Mexican authorities confirmed 16 deaths from swine flu and said 45 were under investigation.

Dr Richard Besser, the acting head of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said: "We are worried. We will be monitoring it and taking it seriously."

There was no point in trying to contain the virus in the US, he said, because it had appeared in California and Texas without obvious connections between cases.

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