Argentina swore in a new health minister on Wednesday as the spreading swine flu epidemic prompted schools nationwide to give students an early vacation and one province to declare a public health emergency.
Juan Luis Manzur, a doctor and vice governor in Argentina's Tucuman province, announced plans to boost public health spending by $263 million this year and said pregnant women could miss work for 15 days to avoid contracting swine flu. He replaces Health Minister Graciela Ocana, who resigned on Monday as concerns over the virus rose.
Argentina's northwestern Jujuy province meanwhile became the nation's first province to declare a public health emergency on Wednesday, after the capital district of Buenos Aires declared its own emergency on Tuesday.
All 23 provinces and the capital also announced plans to let students off for an early and extended winter vacation starting next Monday, while the picturesque town of Pergamino became the first to cancel all public activities, ordering schools, clubs, gyms, and movie theaters closed to halt the spread of the virus.
The town has not confirmed any cases of swine flu.
The Catholic Church urged priests to make sure worshippers sit as far apart as possible at Mass, to suspend handshakes and to distribute communion wafers by hand, rather than placing them in worshippers' mouths, La Nacion newspaper reported.
"Groups of people are dangerous, and that's why we're asking the sick not to go out," Buenos Aires city health minister Jorge Lemus told radio Mitre. Still, he said the capital had not considered suspending public transportation, despite the public health emergency that was declared citywide on Tuesday.
"One could shut down the whole country, but the problem is knowing how long that will last, and knowing the socio-economic, cultural and educational costs," Lemus said.
Argentina had 1,587 confirmed cases of the virus as of Friday, the last time figures were updated. The Health Ministry says 26 people have died as a result of the virus, although local media put that number between 40 and 42. Either figure gives Argentina more swine flu deaths than any other South American country.
Critics have slammed the government's response to the epidemic as slow and piecemeal - problems they said were compounded by poor
political oversight and Ocana's resignation.
"The health system is always at its limit, and when you double demand (for treatment), it overflows," said Jorge Yabkowski, head of the Health Professionals Association. "If you want to treat anyone who has symptoms today, there's no Tamiflu in hospitals. If you ask for face masks, there are none in stores."
"We're facing public health anarchy," Yabkowski said, suggesting that emergency steps should've been taken at least 10 days ago.
Across the Andes in Chile, which has South America's second-most
swine flu deaths, President Michelle Bachelet pledged an additional
$33 million in spending on doctors and medical equipment and predicted the epidemic would peak locally within two weeks.
"The scenario is complex. We're in the presence of a world epidemic situation that we haven't seen for 52 years," Bachelet said after visiting a Santiago hospital.
Clinics extended their hours last weekend to treat the surge in patients.
Since confirming its first case of the virus on May 17 - a woman who'd vacationed at a Dominican Republic seaside resort - Chile has seen its caseload swell to 7,342, including 15 deaths. Bachelet said new incidences will increase in the short term and could include as many as 140 children hospitalized a day.