Mexico was on the brink of a virtual country-wide shutdown today as it tried to deal with the swine flu epidemic.
The government ordered a suspension of non-essential federal and private business activity as the World Health Organisation raised its alert level and warned that “all of humanity” is threatened.
The stark language showed that health officials are very worried about the potential for massive numbers of deaths worldwide from the mutated virus, even though the epidemic so far has claimed only a confirmed eight lives in Mexico and one in the United States.
The Phase 5 alert, indicating a pandemic could be imminent, prompted Mexico to announce the partial May 1-5 shutdown, Health Secretary Jose Cordova said.
Meanwhile Switzerland and the Netherlands today became the latest countries to confirm swine flu infections.
European Union health ministers held emergency talks in Luxembourg to co-ordinate national efforts to prevent the spread of swine flu in Europe.
In Washington, President Barack Obama promised “great vigilance” in confronting the outbreak that has infected at least 93 people in 11 states and forced schools to close, affecting tens of thousands of students.
A Mexican toddler who visited Texas with his family died on Monday in Houston, becoming the first fatality in the US, and 39 Marines were confined to their base in California after one came down with the disease.
The virus, a mix of pig, bird and human genes to which people have limited natural immunity, has also spread to Canada, New Zealand, Britain, Germany, Spain, Israel, Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
“It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic,” WHO Director General Margaret Chan said in Geneva. “We do not have all the answers right now, but we will get them.”
In a televised address, Mexican President Felipe Calderon praised “the heroic work” of doctors and nurses and asked his countrymen to stay in their homes between May 1 and May 5.
“There is no safer place to protect yourself against catching swine flu, than in your house,” he said.
He brushed aside criticisms that his government’s response was slow, stressing several times that authorities had reacted “immediately.”
Schools in Mexico have already been closed until May 6 and 176 professional soccer games this weekend will be played with no fans in the stadiums. During the shutdown, essential services like transport, supermarkets, trash collection and hospitals will remain open.
Mr Calderon said authorities would use the time to decide whether to extend the emergency measures or “if it is possible to phase out some” restrictions.
The outbreak appeared to already be stabilising in Mexico, the epicentre. Confirmed swine flu cases doubled to 99, but new deaths finally seemed to be levelling off after an aggressive public health campaign was launched when the epidemic was declared on April 23.
Although 17 new suspected deaths were reported, only one additional confirmed death was announced on Wednesday, for a total of eight countrywide. The virus is believed to have infected as many as 3,000 across the country.
The WHO said the global threat was nevertheless serious enough to ramp up efforts to produce a vaccine against the virus.
Medical detectives have not pinpointed where the outbreak began. 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.
Jose Cordova, the Mexican health secretary, said getting proper treatment within 48 hours of falling ill “is fundamental for getting the best results” and suggested the virus can be beaten if caught quickly and treated properly.
But it was neither caught quickly nor treated properly in the early days in Mexico, which lacked the capacity to identify the virus, and whose health care system has become the target of widespread anger and distrust.
In case after case, patients have complained of being misdiagnosed, turned away by doctors and denied access to drugs.