Mexico Shuts Down Schools To Contain Swine Flu

The World Health Organization raised its alert level Monday as new cases of swine flu were discovered throughout the world. In Mexico, officials took the extraordinary step of closing all schools throughout the country until May 6. It's the latest effort to try to contain the virus.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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The World Health Organization raised its alert level yesterday as new cases of swine flu were discovered in Spain and Scotland. Swine flu has now also spread to New Zealand and Israel. In the U.S., the number of confirmed cases has risen to 50. Mexico is grappling with the largest outbreak of swine flu. In that country, the virus is suspected in more than 150 deaths. Mexican officials have now closed all schools until next week. It's the latest effort to try to contain the virus.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Mexico City.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARRIE KAHN: Elizabeth Sandoval(ph) and her cousin Amelie Hernandez(ph) shared a seesaw ride in the small, concrete-covered park in Mexico City. It looked like the two cousins were enjoying the mandatory school break, and that their usually crowded neighborhood play yard with was nearly empty.

Ms. ELIZABETH SANDOVAL: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: But 9-year-old Elizabeth said she'd rather be in school. She is bored staying at home all day, and she misses her teacher and her friends. The cousins live across the street with their uncle, Marco Salazar(ph), who says he peered out the window and decided to take advantage of the empty park.

Mr. MARCO SALAZAR: (Through Translator) There's hardly anyone here and besides, the wind is blowing. Nothing is going to happen to us.

KAHN: But yesterday, health officials here raised the death toll and said that thousands are infected throughout the country. Authorities continue to urge people to stay indoors, and wear a mask when venturing out. Even though Elizabeth has a raspy cough, neither she nor her uncle don one of the millions of blue masks being handed out across this huge city.

As Elizabeth spits frequently on the concrete, 27-year-old Alejandra Gonzalez Perez(ph) watches from a nearby bench. Gonzalez leans over and fixes the oversized blue mask covering her 9-month-old son's mouth.

Ms. ALEJANDRA GONZALEZ PEREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: He's little and doesn't like it on his face.

But she says she has to do it for his own good. Gonzalez says she's had to get out of the house. She couldn't stand being locked up in there any longer.

Ms. PEREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: She lets out a big sigh and says that the situation is very difficult, and she's trying not to be frightened. But in a press conference late last night, Mexico's health secretary, Jose Angel Cordova, said the outbreak is at a critical point, and he defended his government's response.

Mr. JOSE ANGEL CORDOVA (Secretary, Mexico Department of Health): (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Cordova says it's important to highlight that Mexico has gone above and beyond international regulations in dealing with the crisis. Yesterday, officials contemplated closing major businesses in the capital and even shutting down the normally packed subway system.

Exiting the turnstiles at a metro station, Nicholas Fragosa(ph) says such a move would cripple the city. He says everyone is hurting from the economic crisis and barely working as it is. He asks, now they want to make it harder to earn enough money to survive?

Mr. NICHOLAS FRAGOSA: (Through Translator) The government is handing out the masks to protect everyone from the flu outbreak, but what they should be protecting is our stomachs. We're hungry.

KAHN: At a press conference yesterday evening, officials announced they would not force large businesses to close or shut down the subway system for now.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

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