Death toll rises as Mexico tries to battle flu

Mexico’s president assumed new powers to isolate people infected with a deadly swine flu strain as authorities struggled to contain an outbreak that world health officials warned could become a global epidemic.

New cases of swine flu were confirmed in the US states of Kansas and California and suspected in New York City.

But officials said they didn’t know whether the New York cases were the strain that now has killed up to 81 people in Mexico and likely sickened 1,324 since April 13, according to figures updated by Mexico’s health secretary.

Only 20 deaths have been confirmed in Mexico.

Mexican authorities ordered schools closed in the capital and the states of Mexico and San Luis Potosi until May 6.

Mexican soldiers and health workers patrolled airports and bus stations as they tried to corral people who may be infected with the swine flu, as it became clearer that the government may have been slow to respond to the outbreak in March and early April.

Now, even detaining the ill may not keep the strain – a combination of swine, bird and human influenza that people may have no natural immunity to – from spreading, epidemiologists say.

The World Health Organisation yesterday asked countries around the world to step up reporting and surveillance of the disease and implement a coordinated response to contain it.

Two dozen new suspected cases were reported in Mexico City alone, where authorities suspended schools and all public events until further notice. More than 500 concerts, sporting events and other gatherings were cancelled in the metropolis of 20 million.

The Mexican government issued a decree authorising President Felipe Calderon to invoke special powers letting the Health Department isolate patients and inspect homes, incoming travellers and baggage.

Officials said the decree gives clear legal authority to Health Department workers who might otherwise face reprisals.

At Mexico City’s international airport, health workers passed out written questionnaires seeking to identify passengers with flu symptoms.

Surgical masks and brochures were handed out at bus and underground stations.

A team from the Centres for Disease Control arrived in Mexico to work with its counterparts to limit the outbreak, the US Embassy said.

The embassy said the US has not imposed travel constraints to and from Mexico but is suspending the processing of visas and other services through Wednesday to avoid creating crowds.

It issued an earlier message advising US citizens to avoid large crowds, shaking hands, greeting people with a kiss or using the subway.

But with confirmed swine flu cases in at least six states – and possibly as many as 14 – the efforts seemed unlikely to stop the spread of the disease.

Particularly difficult in a metropolis as crowded as Mexico City was the embassy’s advice to maintain “a distance of at least six feet from other persons may decrease the risk of exposure”.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the outbreak of the never-before-seen virus has “pandemic potential.” But she said it is still too early to tell if it would become a pandemic.

“The situation is evolving quickly,” Ms Chan said in Geneva. “A new disease is by definition poorly understood.”

WHO lays out three criteria necessary for a global epidemic to occur: The virus is able to infect people, can readily spread person-to-person and the global population has no immunity to it. Out of the many cases in Mexico reported, relatively few samples have been tested.

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