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Flu pandemic likely even as Mexico cases easing

Mexico's swine flu outbreak appeared to be easing on Saturday with a decrease in serious cases. But world health officials warned the unpredictable virus could still become a pandemic.

Written by Reuters | Mexico City |
May 3, 2009 11:22:29 am

Mexico’s swine flu outbreak appeared to be easing on Saturday with a decrease in serious cases,the government said,but world health officials warned the unpredictable virus could still become a pandemic. “Each day there are fewer serious cases and the mortality has been decreasing,” Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova told a news conference in Mexico City,where millions were heeding government advice to stay at home. Of the more than 100 suspected deaths from the new H1N1 virus that have emerged in the Latin American nation,19 had been confirmed,Cordova said. Mexico had already scaled back from its original estimate of 176 suspected deaths. However,new cases of the mongrel virus,which mixes swine,avian and human flu strains,were still being tracked across the world. Costa Rica,Italy and Ireland confirmed cases of the disease,which has now been found in 18 countries.

In Geneva,the World Health Organization said H1N1 influenza had not spread in a sustained way outside North America,as required before the pandemic alert is raised to its highest level. But it said that would probably happen soon. “I would still propose that a pandemic is imminent because we are seeing the disease spread,” Michael Ryan,WHO director of Global Alert and Response,told a briefing. Few are ready to take chances with the new virus,widely dubbed swine flu.

In Hong Kong,police quarantined a hotel after a Mexican guest fell ill with the virus. Mexico,the country hardest hit by the virus,called the action “unjustified” and advised its citizens to avoid travel to China. China’s Foreign Ministry had no immediate response.

Mexican authorities said earlier they believed the situation was stabilizing as fewer patients with severe flu symptoms were checking into hospitals. The WHO said 15 countries had reported 615 infections,not including the reports of confirmed cases in Ireland,Italy and Costa Rica. The United States,the second hardest-hit nation,has confirmed 160 cases in 21 states. But public hospitals in Mexico have noted a steady drop in patients turning up with fevers,suggesting the infection rate may be declining as people use hand gel and avoid crowds. U.S. officials said they were encouraged by the developments in Mexico but added it was too early to relax.

“We are remaining vigilant,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We have seen times where things appear to be getting better and then get worse again. … I think in Mexico we may be holding our breath for some time.” Almost all infections outside Mexico have been mild. The only death in another country has been a Mexican toddler who was taken to the United States before he became ill. Canadian health officials announced that a swine herd in the province of Alberta had been infected with the virus,apparently after contact with a Canadian carpenter who had brought the virus back from Mexico. People are known to infect pigs with influenza,just as pigs can infect people.

Canadian officials noted the outbreak did not pose a risk to the food supply and Canadian pork remained safe to eat. The WHO and other international organizations warned on Saturday against imposing any trade restrictions on pigs or pig products as a result of the emergence of the new flu.

President Barack Obama said the United States was responding aggressively to the new flu strain,closing some schools temporarily and distributing antiviral drug supplies as needed. Obama spoke to Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Saturday about cooperating to stop the virus. Scientists are still trying to assess how the new virus behaves and compares to regular seasonal flu strains,which kill between 250,000 and 500,000 globally every year.

WHO hiked its pandemic alert level to 5 from 3 this week — the last step before a pandemic — due to its rapid spread and the possibility it could hit hard poor and disease-prone communities,including among people with HIV.

Ryan said the WHO would send more than 2 million treatment courses of antiviral drugs to poor countries to help them prepare for the virus,which is already causing havoc with a travel industry that flies hundreds of thousands of people to and from Mexico each week. Interior Minister Fernando Gomez Mont called on Mexico’s political parties to cooperate with efforts to prevent contagion by not holding major public rallies in the campaign for mid-term congressional polls scheduled for July.

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