Mexico breathes, flu contained

May 7, 2009 12:00 am

, MEXICO CITY, May 7 – Mexico relaxed strict controls aimed at containing swine flu after a five-day lockdown, as officials heralded a scientific step forward in finding a vaccine for the virus.

Offices and restaurants in Mexico — the epicentre of the virus — reopened despite officials conceding that the death toll had now risen from 29 to 42.

The number of cases in the United States meanwhile rose to 642 as Sweden and Poland became the latest countries to confirm they had cases of A(H1N1).

South Korea announced its third case of the virus, in a woman who had returned from North America on the same flight as Seoul’s first confirmed sufferer, and China claimed the epidemic was worsening.

Canada offered hope for efforts to contain the outbreak, announcing its scientists had completed the genetic sequencing of swine flu.

Speaking after the United States confirmed a second fatality from the virus, Canadian Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said knowledge of it had "taken a great step forward."

Canada has the third highest number of cases with 165 identified so far. The scientific breakthrough is "vitally important to our understanding of this outbreak," said Aglukkaq.

In Mexico, Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said 42 people had been killed by the outbreak. The World Health Organization (WHO) said more than 1,893 people in 23 countries around the world have been infected, including some who have never been to Mexico.

The WHO global death toll, which frequently lags aggregated national totals, stood at 31.

Mexican authorities pressed ahead with reopening offices and restaurants, as tourists were again allowed entry to Aztec and Mayan ruins, though staff had to wear masks and were instructed not to let crowds gather.

"Fortunately, we’ve managed to stop the dangerous expansion the virus could have had, but it’s not time to shout victory or to say that it’s now controlled and over," President Felipe Calderon said during a hospital visit.

"There will be more (cases)," he warned.

The emergence of the virus, a new strain that has combined human, swine and bird influenza, set off fears of a worldwide pandemic, even though the death toll has been relatively low.

Countries have imposed a range of measures to prevent a global outbreak, especially hitting the tourism and travel industries and hurting Mexico’s economy, already severely strained by the financial crisis.

Some of the measures have been denounced as an overreaction and the WHO is asking countries that took "significantly different" measures to combat swine flu, such as restricting international travel, to justify their actions.

Meanwhile the number of confirmed US cases of swine flu surged by 60 percent Wednesday to 642 from 403, with infections now reported in 41 states.

Two people have now died in the US — a Mexican toddler visiting relatives in Texas, and a woman in her thirties with other health problems who died in a Texas hospital on Monday.

A leading US health official warned he still expected the swine flu outbreak to reach the level of a pandemic.

"With the number of cases in other countries, I would be surprised if we don’t get to level six" on the WHO’s six-phase pandemic alert scale, said Richard Besser, acting head of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

US health officials told lawmakers they were moving quickly to develop a vaccine and in just two weeks had gained a greater understanding of the virus.

The 2009 H1N1 virus "contains genetic pieces from four different virus sources," said Ann Schuchat, a top CDC official; adding scientists could now "identify a novel virus (and) understand its complete genetic characteristics."

Despite the US and Canadian breakthroughs, a note of gloom was sounded in China.

"Chinese medical experts believe the global epidemic situation is still worsening and China has to give continued high attention," Vice Health Minister Zhang Mao said, quoted by the official Xinhua news agency.

However, Chinese state media reported that quarantine restrictions on people who had shared a flight from Mexico with an infected man were beginning to be lifted.


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