Mexico is temporarily suspending all non-essential activity of the federal government as the number of confirmed swine flu cases jumped.
Mexican Health Secretary Jose Cordova said non-essential federal government offices will be closed from tomorrow until May 5. He said all non-essential private businesses must also close for that period but essential services like transport, supermarkets, rubbish collection and hospitals will remain open.
Mr Cordova told a news conference this morning that confirmed swine flu cases have risen to 99, including eight dead.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon asked Mexicans to stay at home, saying their houses were the safest place to be.
“In the last several days, Mexico has faced one of the most serious problems in recent years,” Mr Calderon said in a nationally televised address. He brushed aside criticisms that the government response was slow, stressing several times that authorities had reacted “immediately”.
He said authorities would use the partial shutdown to decide whether to extend the emergency measures, or “if it is possible to phase out some” restrictions.
Scientists believe that somewhere in the world, months or even a year ago, a pig virus jumped to a human and mutated, and has been spreading between humans ever since. Unlike with bird flu, doctors have no evidence suggesting a direct pig-to-human infection from this strain, which is why they have not recommended killing pigs.
China, criticised in the past for its lack of openness in handling medical crises, has adamantly rejected foreign media reports that say swine flu originated in the country, saying the claims harm China’s reputation.
The official China Daily reported today that officials from the agriculture and health ministries called the reports “groundless”, saying China has no reported cases of swine flu in either humans or pigs.
The ministries did not specify which media organisations were involved.
The agriculture ministry said China does not export live pigs to Mexico or the United States so it cannot be the source of the outbreak.
Health ministry spokesman Mao Qu’nan lashed out at the reports.
US President Barack Obama meanwhile said health officials were not recommending closing the US border with Mexico because of outbreak.
The president likened that move to – in his words – closing the barn door after the horses were out.
Mr Obama was holding a news conference this morning to mark his 100th day in office just as swine flu concerns intensified.
He said Americans must maintain great vigilance and respond appropriately to swine flu cases cropping up in the United States. He also says the outbreak is cause for deep concern but not panic. And he assured the public that the US government was doing everything it can to be on top of the matter.
Mexican Treasury Secretary Agustin Carstens said the flu epidemic may cost its economy between 0.3 and 0.5% of GDP.
New Zealand officials, meanwhile, have reduced their number of swine flu cases by one to 13 after conducting further checks.
New Zealand Health Minister Tony Ryall said today one traveller who a day earlier was assessed as having swine flu had been removed from the list after further checks.
Mr Ryall said the government was counting 13 other people as “confirmed cases,” though laboratory tests had confirmed the virus is just three people. All of those cases, including 12 students and teachers in a high school group, were aboard a flight from Los Angeles to Auckland last weekend.
Mr Ryall more than doubled the number of possible cases in New Zealand to 104, with tests under way.
Some of the poorest countries in Asia have announced an emergency meeting on ways to protect themselves from swine flu outbreaks.
Asia, so far, has escaped infection, though territories in the region including Australia, Hong Kong and South Korea say they are testing people with flu symptoms that could be the new illness.
Southeast Asian countries say they will call an urgent meeting of health ministers in early May to discuss how to deal with the crisis.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations said last night the health minister’s meeting would probably be held in the Thai capital of Bangkok.
ASEAN says it was ready to quickly tap its emergency stockpile of 1 million courses of anti-flu drugs Tamiflu and Relenza.
The swine flu outbreak began taking a toll on the US, spreading to 11 states and closing schools amid confirmation of the first US death – a Mexican toddler who was visiting Texas with his family.
In California, dozens of Marines were confined after one came down with the disease. Some 100 schools were closed, and more might need to be shut down temporarily.
The total confirmed cases in the US rose to nearly 100 last night, with many more suspected.
The Geneva-based World Health Organisation sounded its own ominous alarm, raising its alert level to one notch below a full-fledged global pandemic. WHO Director General Margaret Chan said: “It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic.”