Mexican, US officials rush to tackle killer flu
MEXICO CITY (AFP) – Mexican and US officials Friday took emergency steps to contain outbreaks of a new multi-strain swine flu, which has sickened hundreds in Mexico, causing 20 deaths, and infected seven in the US.
Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova confirmed 20 deaths from swine flu Friday and said authorities were probing 40 more possible fatalities.
Authorities were probing 943 possible infections.
The World Health Organization confirmed 18 deaths in Mexico and said 12 cases had the same genetic make-up as victims of the virus in the US state of California.
Mexican officials warned people to avoid crowds or using the subway, closed the capital's museums and prepared to launch a massive vaccination campaign in the densely-populated capital, although they lacked vaccines.
"There were 60 deaths with similar symptoms. It has been confirmed that 20 of those are from this illness and the other 40 are being analyzed," Cordova told a news conference.
"It's a virus which mutated from pigs and transmitted to some humans," Cordova said earlier.
US medical authorities expressed strong concern as seven known, non-fatal, cases were reported in the southern United States, and underlined that the virus included strains from different types of flu.
President Barack Obama was being fully briefed on an outbreak, said a White House spokesman.
The US cases included five in California and two in Texas, in three clusters, WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told journalists in Geneva.
The WHO, which has identified swine influenza as a potential source of a human flu pandemic, activated its global epidemic operations center.
Mexican authorities closed schools in the capital and the center of the country and Mexico City was to launch a massive vaccination campaign for "all people who haven't been vaccinated" against the usual winter flu, local Health Minister Armando Ahued said at a news conference.
The government has 500,000 flu vaccines and planned to administer them to health workers, but supplies were short in the urban area of some 20 million.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says on its website that there is no vaccine to specifically protect humans from swine flu, only to protect pigs.
"The seasonal influenza vaccine will likely help provide partial protection against swine H3N2, but not swine H1N1 viruses," the website says.
It was not clear as to all the strains identified in Mexico, but the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said the "novel" A/H1N1 influenza identified in at least two of the recent cases by US counterparts might have a risk of developing into a pandemic-type virus.
"It's very obvious that we are very concerned. We've set up emergency operation centers," CDC spokesman Dave Daigle told AFP.
President Felipe Calderon canceled a trip and met with his cabinet to coordinate Mexico's response.
Medical teams were on stand-by at the capital's international airport, passengers with flu symptoms were advised not to fly, and all passengers had to fill out a health questionnaire, said Victor Mejia, a spokesman at the capital's international airport.
There had been some 800 suspected cases with flu-like illness in Mexico and 60 suspected deaths, WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said earlier.
Most of the Mexican cases were found in healthy young adults with no known record of prior illness.
The WHO said it was in constant contact with health authorities in the United States and in Mexico.
Human outbreaks of H1N1 swine influenza virus were recorded in the United States in 1976 and 1988, when two deaths were recorded, and in 1986. In 1988 a pregnant woman died after contact with sick pigs, according to the WHO.
In recent years the global focus for a pandemic has shifted to the H5N1 bird flu virus, which has spread from poultry to humans and killed 257 of the 421 people infected by the virus since 2003.
If a pig is simultaneously infected with a human and an avian influenza virus, it can serve as a "mixing vessel" for the two viruses that could combine to create a new more virulent strain.