Swine Flu Could Be Stabilizing in Mexico

MEXICO CITY (AP) - The toll from the swine flu epidemic appears
to be stabilizing in Mexico, the health secretary said late
Tuesday, with only seven more suspected deaths. But health
officials said they "fully expect" to see U.S. deaths as the
virus keeps spreading around the world.

The new virus is suspected in 159 deaths and 2,498 illnesses
across Mexico, said Health Secretary Jose Cordova, who called the
death toll "more or less stable" even as hospitals are swamped
with people who think they have swine flu. And he said only 1,311
suspected swine flu patients remain hospitalized, a sign that
treatment works for people who get medical care quickly.

The positive news came as the swine flu appeared to spread from
hundreds of students at a New York school who fell ill after a
small group's spring break trip to Mexico, and confirmed cases were
reported in New Zealand and Israel, joining the United States,
Canada, Britain and Spain.

The United States stepped up surveillance at its borders and
warned Americans to avoid non-essential travel to Mexico. Canada,
Israel and France issued similar travel advisories.

Cuba became the first country to impose an outright ban on
travel to the epicenter of the epidemic. Argentina soon followed
with its own ban, and ordered 60,000 visitors who arrived from
Canada, Mexico and the U.S. in the past 20 days to contact the
Health Ministry.

Meanwhile, Mexico was eliminating reasons for tourists to visit.
On Tuesday, the pyramids and all other archaeological sites were
put off limits nationwide and restaurants in the capital were
closed for all but take-out food in an aggressive bid to stop
gatherings where the virus can spread.

Experts on epidemics said these kinds of government
interventions are ineffective, since this flu - a never-before-seen
blend of genetic material from pigs, birds and humans to which
people have no natural immunity - is already showing up in too many
places for containment efforts to make a difference.

Outside Mexico, confirmed cases were reported for the first time
as far away as New Zealand and Israel, joining the United States,
Canada, Britain and Spain. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention said the U.S. has 66 confirmed cases in five states,
with 45 in New York, one in Ohio, one in Indiana, two in Kansas,
six in Texas and 11 in California.

"Border controls do not work. Travel restrictions do not
work," said WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl, recalling the SARS
epidemic earlier in the decade that killed 774 people, mostly in
Asia, and slowed the global economy.

Instead, they say, governments should do more to provide medical
help to people with swine flu symptoms, since the virus is proving
to be treatable if diagnosed early.

U.S. officials stressed there is no need for panic, noting that
flu outbreaks are quite common every year. The CDC estimates about
36,000 people in the U.S. alone died of flu-related causes each
year, on average, in the 1990s.

Cordova said many of the people crowding hospital waiting rooms
complaining of swine flu symptoms actually suffered from other
ailments - and many of those suspected of having the virus were
treated and sent home.

"You can see the total of new cases," Cordova said, pointing
to bar charts that showed a rise and fall. "In the last days there
has been a drop."

Only 26 cases, including seven deaths, have been definitively
confirmed to be swine flu, Cordova said.

Cordova said that with U.S. help, new testing facilities in
Mexico will soon have the capacity to test 150 samples a day for
the new strain of swine flu. Currently, it must send samples to the
CDC or Canadian labs.

Meanwhile, Cordova said health workers have begun using a less
specific quick test, and will immediately administer anti-viral
medicine to anyone with the general class of flu that includes the
new strain.

Another focus is preventing people from gathering in groups
where mass contagion could result. Mexico City's mayor ordered
restaurants to limit service to takeouts and deliveries, and closed
gyms and swimming pools and restricted access to many government
buildings.

The economic toll also spread. Even before the restaurant
closings, the capital has lost 777 million pesos ($56 million) a
day since the outbreak began, said Arturo Mendicuti, president of
the city's Chamber of Trade, Services and Tourism.

"Of course we don't like these measures," he said. "We hope
they don't last."

In the U.S., President Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.5
billion in emergency funds to fight the illness.

"I fully expect we will see deaths from this infection," said
Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC.

In New York, there were growing signs that the virus was moving
beyond St. Francis Preparatory school, where sick students started
lining up at the nurse's office days after some students returned
from Cancun.

At the 2,700-student school, the largest Roman Catholic high
school in the nation, "many hundreds of students were ill with
symptoms that are most likely swine flu," said Health Commissioner
Thomas Frieden. A teacher was one of 28 confirmed cases. And a
nearby school with siblings at St. Francis was shut down as well
after more than 80 students called in sick.

"It is here and it is spreading," Frieden said.

Rachel Mele, a 16-year-old at the school, saw her fever break
Tuesday for the first time in five days. It had been hovering
around 101 since the terrifying night when her parents rushed her
to the hospital.

"I could barely even catch my breath. I've never felt a pain
like that before," Mele said. "My throat, it was burning, like,
it was the worst burning sensation I ever got before. I couldn't
even swallow. I couldn't even let up air. I could barely breathe
through my mouth."

It is significant that some of confirmed New York cases passed
swine flu to others who had not traveled - this suggests the virus
can jump from human to human to human, spreading through other
countries, said Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general of the
World Health Organization.

"There is definitely the possibility that this virus can
establish that kind of community-wide outbreak capacity in multiple
countries, and it's something we're looking for very closely,"
Fukuda said. So-called "community" transmissions are a key test
for gauging whether the spread of the virus has reached pandemic
proportions.

Scientists hope to have a key ingredient for a vaccine ready in
early May, but it still will take months before any shots are
available for the first required safety testing. Using samples of
the flu taken from people who fell ill in Mexico and the U.S.,
scientists are engineering a strain that could trigger the immune
system without causing illness.

"We're about a third of the way" to that goal, said Dr. Ruben
Donis of the CDC.

U.S. officials said they may abandon the term "swine flu"
since the virus blends genetic material from three species, and
because many people mistakenly fear they can get it from meat. The
outbreak has been a public relations nightmare for the pork
industry, and China, Russia and Ukraine are among the countries who
have banned imports from Mexico and parts of the U.S.

"It's killing our markets," said Francis Gilmore, 72, who runs
a 600-hog operation in Perry, Iowa, outside Des Moines, and worries
his small business could be ruined by the crisis. "Where they got
the name, I just don't know."


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