Life In Mexico City Slows Amid Flu Fears

Mexicans donned masks and stayed home Sunday, as that nation tries to slow the spread of the new swine flu virus.

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Now to the place where the outbreak was first reported: Mexico City. Public life there slowed dramatically today as the government called on people to stay in their homes to slow the spread of swine flu. Officials in Mexico say more than 1,300 cases of the disease have been detected. The death toll stands at 20.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Mexico City.

JASON BEAUBIEN: On Sunday afternoons, residents of Mexico City usually pour into the streets and parks of this city of 20 million people. But today, parts of the city looked like ghost towns. Streets that are usually packed with honking taxis had only a few cars in them. Professional soccer matches took place in empty stadiums. And at the city's sprawling main cathedral, mass was celebrated behind closed doors. The service was instead broadcast on the radio.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The archdiocese cancelled all public services, not just at the main cathedral, but throughout the capital until further notice. The government has ordered nightclubs, theaters, museums and other places where crowds gather to shut their doors. Playgrounds have been padlocked.

And in the most dramatic move of all, federal authorities have closed all schools in the capital, the neighboring state of Mexico and San Luis Potosi for at least another 10 days.

Mariano Alberto(ph) is sitting on a white five-gallon bucket that he usually uses to wash parked cars. A white mask covers his mouth. He says the streets have been practically empty this afternoon.

Mr. MARIANO ALBERTO: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The people are in their houses because of this disease, he says. And for him, fewer people in the streets means fewer cars to wash and less money.

One place where people are still gathering is outside Lopez Mateo Hospital, a public facility in the south of the city. They're gathered outside because the hospital is strictly limiting visits for patients, and people in this crowd, almost all of them in surgical masks, are waiting to try to see their loved ones. Hospital administrators also weren't letting in reporters.

Dr. Salvador Garcia Ramirez(ph) was coming out for a break. He says there's a lot of fear right now, both among the general public and the staff.

Dr. SALVADOR GARCIA RAMIREZ: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: There's fear, for example, he says, because some of our co-workers have also gotten sick. Asked if the hospital is overcrowded, he says it isn't. He says in the last couple of days, the number of people coming in has actually declined.

While the government is calling on people to seek medical attention immediately if they have signs of a flu, Garcia says he's not sure that everyone will. He worries that with so much attention focused on this potentially deadly disease, people are afraid that they might catch it at the hospital. Or if they do already have it, that they could be held there.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

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Public Health Officials Brace For Swine Flu Battle

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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