Swine Flu Shuts Down Mexico City

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Mexican officials say swine flu is probably the common link in at least 81 deaths in the country. The government has shut down schools in Mexico City and the surrounding area until next week. Meanwhile, officials in the U.S. and New Zealand are investigating whether the illness has spread into those countries.

LYNN NEARY, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

The swine flu outbreak continues to grow both here and abroad, though it's still unclear how serious it will be. In New York City, eight high school students have been infected. Kansas is reporting two people with swine flu, with seven cases in California, two in Texas and one in Ohio. That brings the U.S. count to 20. All the case in this country are mild.

At a White House press conference that is now underway, Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said these numbers are likely to increase.

Dr. RICHARD BESSER (Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): As we look for cases of swine, we are seeing more cases of swine flu. We expect to see more cases of swine flu. We're responding and we're responding aggressively to try and learn more about this outbreak and to implement measures to control this outbreak.

NEARY: In Mexico the outbreak is more serious. The government says the number of suspected deaths is 81. Only 20 of these have been confirmed as swine flu, however. Mexico is also investigating about a 1,000 cases of severe pneumonia. Yesterday officials extended a ban in the capital on mass gatherings and ordered all schools to remain closed for at least another 10 days. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Mexico City.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Mexico City has swine flu fever. Concern about the virus dominates the capital. At the airport, the sales girls in duty free are wearing tight skirts and blue surgical masks. Immigration agents, cleaners and police all have their mouths covered.

(Soundbite of airport announcement)

Unidentified Woman: Dear passengers, we are (unintelligible) flu virus, which constitutes a possible outbreak.

BEAUBIEN: Posters urged people to wash their hands regularly with soap and water. Out in public, maybe half the people have masks either on or pulled down around their necks.

(Soundbite of market)

BEAUBIEN: At the Merced Market near the center of Mexico City, tomatoes, chilies and tomatillos are piled on long wooden tables. The air inside the building is laden with the smell of fresh cut onions and cilantro, but many people here view that air with suspicion. This woman, Berta Hernandez Corona(ph) had the ubiquitous blue mask over her mouth.

Ms. BERTA HERNANDEZ CORONA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, I'm worried about it, she says. Because I'm not from here, I'm from Pueblo and I don't want to bring the flu back there. Vendors say that on a Saturday afternoon, this market would usually be packed.

Mr. JESUS SORNEJO MARTINEZ(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Jesus Sornejo Martinez says the market, compared to other times, it's empty right now. Usually at this hour it's full. He's 39 years old and he says he has never seen a time like this when all the schools are closed and people are afraid to come out in public. He sells cucumbers and squash. He says the swine flu outbreak is already affecting his business.

Mr. MARTINEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: These products are perishable, he says. If you don't sell them in a couple of days, they're lost. Sornejo Martinez says the worst thing for him is that no one seems to really know what's happening with the disease and whether things might get much worse before they get better. And this is also worrying public health officials around the world. The new strain of swine flu that's killing people in Mexico right now has the characteristics necessary to explode into a global pandemic. It appears to spread through human contact and it appears capable of spreading quickly.

The World Health Organization yesterday called it a public health emergency of international concern. So far cases have only been confirmed in U.S. and Mexico, with the vast majority south of the border. And Mexican officials are scrambling to try to get control of it. President Felipe Calderon is calling on Mexicans to at least temporarily abandon their custom of shaking hands and kissing women on the cheek as a form of greeting.

President FELIPE CALDERON (Mexico): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: As you can see, the president said, officials here are not greeting one another. He also told people not to go out to cinemas or shows or other enclosed public gatherings. On this, the president and his health secretary are issuing slightly different messages. The health secretary has ordered that even open air gatherings such as soccer games be banned in the capital.

And the efforts by the government are not all just about encouraging people to wash hands and look after their health. President Calderon issued an order yesterday giving the federal government the power to confine people who are potentially contagious against their will and even search their homes.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

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Public Health Officials Brace For Swine Flu Battle

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Swine Flu In The U.S.

Number of laboratory-confirmed cases of human swine flu in the U.S. as of 12:30 p.m. ET, Apr. 26.:

  • California: 7
  • Kansas: 2
  • New York City: 8
  • Ohio: 1
  • Texas: 2

Total: 20

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Governments are racing to find and contain pockets of swine flu around the globe. U.S. health officials declared a public health emergency Sunday in response to a growing outbreak of swine flu, as Canada reported its first confirmed cases.

At a White House briefing, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the declaration "sounds more severe than it really is," but said it authorizes public health officials to put an apparatus in place for additional testing, to distribute antiviral medications and to take other steps if needed.

Napolitano said roughly 12 million doses of antiviral drugs will be moved from a federal stockpile to places where states can quickly get their share if they decide they need it. Priority will be given to the five states with known cases so far: California, Texas, New York, Ohio and Kansas.

There are now 20 confirmed cases in those states. Many, but not all, of those cases involve travelers who have recently been to Mexico.

The U.S. cases have been mild so far, but "as we continue to look for cases, we are going to see a broader spectrum of disease," said Dr. Richard Besser, acting chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

President Barack Obama is set to address the health crisis Monday in remarks to a meeting of the nation's top scientists. His administration sought on Sunday to strike a balance, informing Americans without panicking them.

In Canada, Nova Scotia's chief public health officer, Dr. Robert Strang, said the province had confirmed four mild cases of swine flu in students under age 18.

"It was acquired in Mexico, brought home and spread," Strang said. All of the students are recovering, he said.

Mexico: More Deaths Could Be Attributed To Flu

Swine flu has killed at least 20 people in Mexico, and possibly more than 80. Most of the dead were ages 25 to 45, a worrying sign because a hallmark of past flu pandemics has been high fatalities among healthy young adults.

But Mexican President Felipe Calderon said Sunday that more than two-thirds of the roughly 1,300 people in Mexico that were believed to have swine flu have been tested and found to be free of the disease. Another 400 people are still undergoing tests.

During a meeting of health officials, Calderon said it's important to "take this seriously, but it's also very important to stay calm, cooperate with authorities and inform them of any cases that arise." He said Mexico has ample stocks of antiviral medicine.

The Mexican government has ordered precautions to prevent the spread of infection. In Mexico City, museums were closed and public events scrapped. Nightclubs and movie theaters were closed Saturday night. At least one open bar stationed medics at its doors to check clients' throats and take their temperatures. All schools in the Mexico City area will be closed until May 6. Some companies plan to have employees work from home, and churchgoers were told to stay home and follow Sunday services on television.

The World Health Organization on Saturday declared the swine flu outbreak a "public health emergency of international concern." A senior official said the agency's emergency committee will meet again on Tuesday to examine the extent to which the virus has spread and decide whether the pandemic alert level should be increased.

Several countries are investigating suspected cases. In Spain, three people have been hospitalized and placed under round-the-clock observation after they displayed flulike symptoms after a trip to Mexico. Four people are being examined in France, also after traveling to Mexico. And in New Zealand, 10 students in Auckland who recently returned from a school trip to Mexico were being treated for mild flulike symptoms that health officials said were probably caused by swine flu.

World Takes Precautions

Nations around the world are taking precautions to contain the spread of the disease. In Egypt, health authorities were examining about 350,000 pigs for swine flu symptoms. In Asia, where countries have had to deal with such other deadly viruses as H5N1 bird flu and SARS, travelers are being screened for fever and other symptoms at airports and border checkpoints.

Hong Kong and Taiwan plan to quarantine people who have fevers and are returning from flu-affected areas. Tokyo's Narita airport has installed a device to test the temperatures of passengers arriving from Mexico. A Russian health agency said any passenger from North America running a fever would be quarantined until cause of the fever is determined.

Russia has also banned the import of meat products from Mexico, California, Texas and Kansas. South Korea said it would increase the number of its influenza virus checks on pork products from Mexico and the U.S. Serbia, too, has banned all imports of pork from North America. During the briefing Sunday in Washington, Napolitano said she wanted to underscore "that you cannot get the swine flu from eating pork."

Also at that briefing, John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said that President Obama "is very concerned" about the swine flu outbreak and is "monitoring the situation very closely." And White House press secretary Robert Gibbs added that the government's response to the swine flu situation was not being hampered by the administration not yet having a secretary of Health and Human Services, a head of the CDC or a surgeon general.

The new flu strain, a mixture of various swine, bird and human viruses, poses the biggest risk of a large-scale pandemic since avian flu surfaced in 1997, killing several hundred people. A 1968 "Hong Kong" flu pandemic killed about 1 million people globally.

New flu strains can spread quickly because no one has natural immunity to them, and a vaccine takes months to develop.

Swine Flu Symptoms

Symptoms include a fever of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, body aches, coughing, a sore throat, respiratory congestion and, in some cases, vomiting and diarrhea.

The virus is usually contracted through direct contact with pigs, but Joseph Domenech, chief of animal health at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, said all indications were that the virus is being spread through human-to-human transmission.

No vaccine specifically protects against swine flu, and it is unclear how much protection current human flu vaccines might offer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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