, MEXICO CITY, Apr 27 – World health officials stepped up the battle against swine flu after the Mexican government upped the probable death toll from the epidemic to 103 and the United States declared a public emergency.
Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova announced on television late Sunday that the number of both suspected and confirmed fatalities from swine flu has reached 103, and the number of those hospitalized due to the epidemic stood at about 400.
The previous probable death toll, announced Saturday, was 81 confirmed and suspected swine flu deaths.
The number of cases under observation in Mexico has reached 1,614, up from 1,324, according to the minister.
Panic grew across the country as citizens heeded government warnings to avoid contact with each other.
The United States will screen visitors arriving from infected areas, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday, as 20 cases were confirmed in five states.
Suspected cases were also investigated in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and six new infections were confirmed in Canada.
As thousands of panicked Mexicans wore surgical masks on the streets, President Felipe Calderon called forcalm, urging citizens to work with authorities to contain the virus.
Mexico City was deserted Sunday after its 20 million residents were ordered to avoid crowds, and a game at 105,000-seat Aztec soccer stadium was played with no fans.
Shops had huge sales of food and bottled water as people prepared to spend days at home.
"As we look for cases of swine flu, we are seeing more cases of swine flu. We expect to see more cases of swine flu," Richard Besser, the acting head of the Centres for Disease Control, told a White House press conference.
Besser said there were eight confirmed cases in New York City, seven in California, two in Texas, two in Kansas and one in Ohio.
US President Barack Obama is monitoring the swine flu outbreak closely and has ordered a "very active, aggressive, and coordinated response," said White House homeland security advisor John Brennan.
World Health Organization officials warned the new strain, apparently born when human and avian flu viruses infected pigs and became mixed, could further mutate.
"Yes, it’s quite possible for this virus to evolve," Keiji Fukuda, acting WHO assistant director-general for health, security and the environment, told journalists in Geneva.
The World Health Organization has already recommended that all nations "intensify surveillance for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia."
The World Bank announced a 205-million-dollar loan to help Mexico fight the virus, including 25 million dollars available immediately in order to "get medicines and medical equipment to detect and diagnose" the virus outbreak, said Mexican Finance Minister Agustin Carstens.
"This virus has clearly a pandemic potential," WHO director general Margaret Chan warned on Saturday.
Asian health officials also went on alert as the flu strain appeared to have spread to New Zealand.
Governments across the region, which has in recent years been at the forefront of the SARS and bird flu epidemics, stepped up checks at airports and urged the public to be on guard for symptoms of the new flu.
Ten New Zealand students who recently travelled to Mexico are "likely" to have contracted swine fever, Health Minister Tony Ryall said – the first suspected cases in the region of more than three billion people.
Two people admitted to an Australian hospital with flu symptoms after returning from Mexico finally tested negative for deadly swine flu, an official said Monday.
Nine people in Colombia were placed under observation after they arrived from Mexico with flu symptoms, and
Spain screened all passengers arriving off flights from Mexico on Sunday and tested eight suspected cases of swine fever as fear spread through Europe.
In the first suspected swine flu case in the Middle East, a 26-year-old Israeli man has been hospitalized in Netanya on returning from Mexico, hospital officials told AFP.
Russia banned meat imports from Mexico, several US states and nine Latin American nations, a spokesman for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said.
According to the WHO, pigs have already been factors in the appearance of two previously unknown diseases that gave rise to pandemics in the last century.