Mexico swine flu deaths spur global epidemic fears
AP – People wear surgical masks as a
precaution against infection inside a subway in Mexico City, Friday, …
MEXICO CITY – A unique strain of swine flu is the
suspected killer of dozens of people in
Mexico, where authorities closed schools, museums,
libraries and theaters in the capital on Friday to try to contain an outbreak
that has spurred concerns of a global flu epidemic.
The worrisome new virus — which combines genetic
material from pigs, birds and humans in a way researchers have not seen before —
also sickened at least eight people in Texas and
California, though there have been no deaths in the
"We are very, very concerned,"
World Health Organization
spokesman Thomas Abraham said. "We have what appears to be a novel virus and it
has spread from human to human ... It's all hands on deck at the moment."
The outbreak caused alarm in Mexico, where more than
1,000 people have been sickened. Residents of the capital donned
and authorities ordered the most sweeping shutdown of public gathering places in
a quarter century. President
Felipe Calderon met with his Cabinet Friday to
coordinate Mexico's response.
The WHO was convening an expert panel to consider
whether to raise the
pandemic alert level or
issue travel advisories.
It might already be too late to contain the outbreak, a
prominent U.S. pandemic flu expert said late Friday.
Given how quickly flu can spread around the globe, if
these are the first signs of a pandemic, then there are probably cases
incubating around the world already, said
Dr. Michael Osterholm at the
University of Minnesota.
Mexico City, "literally hundreds and thousands of
travelers come in and out every day," Osterholm said. "You'd have to believe
there's been more unrecognized transmission that's occurred."
There is no vaccine that specifically protects against swine
flu, and it was unclear how much protection current human flu vaccines might
offer. A "seed stock" genetically matched to the new swine flu virus has been
created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, said Dr. Richard Besser, the
agency's acting director. If the government decides vaccine production is
necessary, manufacturers would need that stock to get started.
Authorities in Mexico urged people to avoid hospitals
unless they had a medical emergency, since hospitals are centers of infection.
They also said Mexicans should refrain from customary greetings such as shaking
hands or kissing cheeks. At Mexico City's international airport, passengers were
questioned to try to prevent anyone with flu symptoms from boarding airplanes
spreading the disease.
Epidemiologists are particularly concerned because the only
fatalities so far were in young people and adults.
The eight U.S. victims recovered from symptoms that were
like those of the regular flu, mostly fever, cough and
sore throat, though some also experienced vomiting
U.S. health officials announced an outbreak notice to
travelers, urging caution and frequent handwashing, but stopping short of
telling Americans to avoid Mexico.
Mexico's Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordoba said 68 people
have died of flu and the new swine flu strain had been confirmed in 20 of those
deaths. At least 1,004 people nationwide were sick from the suspected flu, he
The geographical spread of the outbreaks also concerned
the WHO — while 13 of the 20 deaths were in Mexico City, the rest were spread
across Mexico — four in central San Luis Potosi, two up near the U.S. border in
and one in southern Oaxaca state.
Scientists have long been concerned that a new flu virus
could launch a worldwide
pandemic of a killer disease. A new virus could
evolve when different flu viruses infect a pig, a person or a bird, mingling
their genetic material. The resulting hybrid could spread quickly because people
would have no natural defenses against it.
Still, flu experts were concerned but not alarmed about the
"We've seen swine influenza in humans over the past
several years, and in most cases, it's come from direct pig contact. This seems
to be different," said Dr. Arnold Monto, a flu expert with the
University of Michigan.
"I think we need to be careful and not apprehensive, but
certainly paying attention to new developments as they proceed."
CDC says two flu drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza, seem
effective against the new strain. Roche, the maker of Tamiflu, said the company
is prepared to immediately deploy a stockpile of the drug if requested.
Both drugs must be taken early, within a few days of the onset
of symptoms, to be most effective.
Cordoba said Mexico has enough Tamiflu to treat 1 million
people, but the medicine will be strictly controlled and handed out only by
Mexico's government had maintained until late Thursday
that there was nothing unusual about the flu cases, although this year's
flu season had been worse and longer than past
The sudden turnaround by
public health officials
angered many Mexicans.
"They could have stopped it in time," said Araceli Cruz,
24, a university student who emerged from the subway wearing a
"Now they've let it spread to other people."
The city was handing out free
to passengers on buses and the subway system, which carries 5 million people
each day. Government workers were ordered to wear the masks, and authorities
urged residents to stay home from work if they felt ill.
Closing schools across Mexico's capital of 20 million kept 6.1
million students home, as well as thousands of university students. All state
and city-run cultural activities were suspended, including libraries, state-run
theaters, and at least 14 museums. Private athletic clubs closed down and soccer
leagues were considering canceling weekend games.
The closures were the first citywide shutdown of public
gathering places since millions died in the devastating 1985 earthquake.
Mexico's response brought to mind other major outbreaks,
such as when SARS
hit Asia. At its peak in 2003,
shuttered schools, cinemas and restaurants, and thousands of people were
quarantined at home.
In March 2008,
ordered more than a half-million students to stay home for two weeks because of
a flu outbreak. It was the first such closure in Hong Kong since the outbreak of
severe acute respiratory syndrome.
"It's great they are taking precautions," said Lillian
Molina, a teacher at the Montessori's World preschool in
who scrubbed down empty classrooms with Clorox, soap and Lysol between fielding
calls from worried parents.
U.S. health officials said the outbreak is not yet a
reason for alarm in the United States. The five people sickened in
and three in Texas have all recovered.
It's unclear how the eight, who became ill between late March
and mid-April, contracted the virus because none were in contact with pigs,
which is how people usually catch swine flu. And only a few were in contact with
CDC officials described the virus as having a unique
combination of gene segments not seen before in people or pigs. The bug contains
human virus, avian virus from
North America and pig viruses from North America,
Europe and Asia. It may be completely new, or it may have been around for a
while and was only detected now through improved testing and surveillance, CDC
The most notorious flu pandemic is thought to have killed at
least 40 million people worldwide in 1918-19. Two other, less deadly flu
pandemics struck in 1957 and 1968.