April 26, 2009 in Nation/World

As flu spreads, concern grows

Officials declare health emergency over swine virus
Tracy Wilkinson And Thomas H. Maugh Ii Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY – International officials on Saturday declared the swine flu outbreak in Mexico and the U.S. a “public health emergency” as new cases were reported north and south of the border and fears grew of a global epidemic.

The Mexican government on Saturday indicated that the outbreak was more severe than originally acknowledged, announcing that more than 1,300 people are believed to have been infected. The virus, which the top official of the World Health Organization said had “pandemic potential,” is now suspected in the deaths of 81 people in Mexico, Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said.

Also Saturday, the Mexican government gave itself extraordinary powers to be able to search private homes for sick people, intercept them on public transport, quarantine them and force them to have treatment.

The emergency decree follows measures that have included the closing of schools until May 6, and the temporary shutdown of museums, clubs and theaters. Hundreds of concerts, private parties and other events were canceled as federal and local officials urged the public to avoid large gatherings.

To the north, a new case was discovered Saturday in California and two in Kansas, bringing to 11 the number of confirmed incidents of the disease in the U.S. All patients have recovered. Eight schoolchildren in New York have a form of swine flu, the exact form still being determined.

At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Dr. Anne Schuchat said the agency expected more cases and that containment was “not feasible.”

“Having found the virus where we have found it, we are likely to find it in many more places,” Schuchat told reporters in a telephone news conference. “It is clear that this is widespread, which is why we do not think we can contain spread of this virus.”

Many in Mexico City took heed of the dire health warnings. A city of 20 million people can’t ever really be a ghost town, but on a warm, sunny Saturday, only a fraction of the crowds that normally converge on this metropolis’s parks and plazas were out and about.

Mexicans either stayed home, limited their weekend wanderings or wore masks over their mouths in hopes they would be protected.

“Maybe it does some good,” said Yolanda Flores, 40, a street vendor who was arranging embroidered blouses at a stand downtown. She spoke through a loose blue paper mask, one of thousands distributed by soldiers at transit stations and in Mexico City’s massive central Zocalo, or town square.

A chichi gallery opening for eminent artist Gabriel Orozco went ahead as scheduled, with patrons sipping beer and juice. At the same time, some there expressed concern.

“There is a lot of risk,” said Anabell Villareal, a 45-year-old businesswoman who had artfully draped a scarf across her mouth. “We are on alert. But by taking precautions we can continue to live with other people.”

For many Mexicans, initial alarm over the outbreak was being replaced by anger over the health crisis and skepticism about how the government was handling it. Mexico’s flu season was intense and people were dying long before the government finally sounded the alarm on Thursday, after a Canadian testing laboratory identified the unique strain.

“The problem is this government never tells you the truth,” said lawyer Jose Fernandez, striding bare-faced through the upscale neighborhood of Polanco. “We don’t know what’s real and what isn’t, just how serious this is, at what point they knew about it. … And it makes Mexico look bad.”

Fernandez had just eaten breakfast with his two sons, Gonzalo, 16, and Pepe, 10, and they were on a walk. The boys were wearing masks.

The only mask that Julio Rojas Ruiz had put on his 8-year-old son was a bright red plastic version of those used by Mexico’s famous wrestlers.

“The government is just trying to distract us from other problems, like the economic crisis,” he said. “Or maybe it’s even worse than they’re saying.”

The World Health Organization on Saturday declared the outbreak of the unique strain of swine flu a “public health emergency of international concern.”

Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO, said the outbreak “has pandemic potential” because it is apparently being transmitted from human to human. But she noted it is far too early to predict whether a pandemic will occur.

In London, a British Airways cabin crew member was taken to the hospital as a precaution after developing flu-like symptoms on a flight from Mexico City, the airline said Saturday, according to Reuters.

In the U.S., CDC field teams are now assisting local investigators in California, Texas and Mexico, officials said.

The toll appears to be rising steadily in Mexico. On Saturday, 16 states – twice the number of just two days ago – were reporting cases. Almost all of the deaths so far have been in Mexico City, Mexico state and San Luis Potosi state.

One of the big unknowns in this outbreak is why the disease is so deadly in Mexico but has been milder in the U.S. CDC officials cited several possibilities, including inferior environmental and general health conditions in Mexico, or a slightly different pathogen in the strain. Other experts said the flu’s virulence could have been exacerbated by the slow response of Mexican health officials.

On Saturday, about 70 percent of the city’s theaters, museums, clubs and dance halls obeyed orders to close, city officials said. Schools, already shut in Mexico City and Mexico state, will also be closed in San Luis Potosi.

Tournament soccer matches went ahead as scheduled – but with fans barred from attending. The Roman Catholic Church said Mass would be held today but asked parishioners to wear face masks and skip the part of the service during which they greet others with handshakes or embraces.

Traffic was as light as when the city shuts down over Christmas break; the sprawling Chapultepec Park, a weekend venue for thousands of families on picnics, taking boats on the lakes or playing volleyball and riding bikes, was as close to deserted as it gets.

“There is no one,” said Magdaleno Zamorano, 70, as he scanned the empty pathways while running a food stand selling fried bread and popcorn. “I think the government is fighting this, but people are afraid, just in case. But I have to come here. If I don’t work today, tomorrow what do I eat?”

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