Mexico reported no new deaths from swine flu overnight, giving health experts more reason to be optimistic that the worst is over at the epicentre of the outbreak, despite new cases being confirmed across Europe and Asia.
The World Health Organisation said it has sent 2.4 million treatments of anti-flu drug Tamiflu to 72 developing countries, taking the drugs from a stockpile donated by Roche Holding AG.
“At this point it’s important that all countries have access to anti-virals,” said Dr Mike Ryan, the agency’s global alert and response director.
China worked aggressively to track down people who may have been near a Mexican tourist who had fallen ill, sealing 305 people inside a Hong Kong hotel where he stayed and taking 15 fellow passengers to hospital. The man developed a fever after arriving in the Chinese territory and was isolated in a stable condition today.
South Korea reported Asia’s second confirmed case – a woman just back from Mexico – and other governments also prepared to quarantine passengers, eager to show how they have learned from the deadly Sars epidemic in 2003, when Hong Kong was criticised for imposing quarantines too slowly.
US President Barack Obama also urged caution today in his radio and internet address.
He said: “This is a new strain of the flu virus, and because we haven’t developed an immunity to it, it has more potential to cause us harm.
“Unlike the various strains of animal flu that have emerged in the past, it’s a flu that is spreading from human to human. This creates the potential for a pandemic, which is why we are acting quickly and aggressively.”
Mexico said it had no confirmed deaths from swine flu overnight, even though its number of confirmed cases grew to 443. The US count rose to 161 and there were 705 confirmed swine flu cases worldwide, although the real number is believed to be much higher. The virus also has been detected in Canada, New Zealand, Israel and eight European nations.
Mexico has taken extraordinary measures to combat the epidemic, ordering all non-essential government and private businesses to shut down for five days, at a tremendous cost to its economy. In the wide valley where traffic and crowds can be stifling even on a Saturday, Mexico City streets were strangely quiet, its usually crowded markets shuttered and even parks locked down.
“I’m going crazy in my house with this confinement,” said one Mexico City resident. “There is nowhere to go, nowhere to spend your time.”
Mexico City’s mayor Marcelo Ebrard said they had expected exponential growth in the number of persons complaining of swine flu symptoms, and that the outbreak seems to be slowing instead.
It should soon become clear whether the epidemic is really stabilising in Mexico, but many questions remain about how the disease kills, said the leader of an international team of flu-fighters now operating in the capital.
“That is the big question: Is it stabilising or not? And it is too early to say, but I think we are getting systems in place where we are going to be able to get a handle on this soon,” said Steve Waterman of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr Waterman also warned against taking false comfort from the fact that only one person has died outside Mexico, saying more deaths are likely as the epidemic evolves.
The US government said schools with confirmed cases should close for at least 14 days because children can be contagious for seven to 10 days from when they become ill. More than 430 US schools have closed, affecting about 245,000 children in 18 states.
With the disease on its doorstep, mainland China suspended all direct flights from Mexico, and sealed off the Metropark Hotel, where the 25-year-old Mexican stayed before he became Asia’s first confirmed case late on Friday.
Health workers in white bodysuits patrolled the lobby, and mask-wearing police enforced a seven-day quarantine. One guest, Olivier Dolige of Paris, said they were taking Tamiflu as a precaution – and trying to make the best of it.
Scientists trying to determine the mortality rate said this virus does not appear to match the ferocity of past killers.
“Most people think it is unlikely this is going to be as virulent as the 1918 epidemic. From what we know so far, it doesn’t seem like it is as virulent,” Dr Waterman said.
“The virus has been circulating for more than a month in a city of 20 million of high population density. It could have been much worse,” said CDC epidemiologist Marc-Alain Widdowson.
The two CDC doctors spoke during a tour of Mexico’s Intelligence Unit for Health Emergencies, where teams of doctors and scientists monitor the outbreak in real-time and plasma screens enable frequent video conference calls with leaders from the Atlanta-based CDC, the World Health Organisation and other institutions.
Health secretary Jose Angel Cordova cited other indications that the disease is not very contagious – Mexican investigators who visited 280 relatives of victims found only four had contracted the disease, and that the number of people in hospital with suspected cases is declining. But he stressed that it is too early for the government to declare the epidemic is subsiding.
Getting fast and effective care is important, said Hugo Lopez-Gatell Ramirez, deputy director-general of epidemiology at the centre. Among the 16 confirmed swine flu deaths in Mexico, the average time victims waited before going to a doctor was seven days. For those who were ill but recovered, the average wait was three days.
Mr Lopez-Gatell said that even before the swine flu outbreak, Mexican authorities had been monitoring a higher-than-usual number of flu cases and an unusual phenomenon in which otherwise healthy young adults were falling ill with pneumonia in greater numbers. There had been 15 flu outbreaks in this year’s flu season, as opposed to the five or six that Mexico normally sees.
He said that put Mexico on guard and led to a fast reaction when unexplained illnesses began in March. Despite some international criticism of the Mexican response, Mr Lopez-Gatell said no mistakes were made.
“We would have done everything the same if we had it to do over again,” he said.