, MEXICO CITY, May 4 – Mexico has said its swine flu epidemic was declining as a diplomatic storm brewed over China’s decision to quarantine dozens of Mexicans who have shown no signs of infection.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization warned that it could soon raise its global pandemic alert level to a maximum of six and stressed that any fresh outbreaks of the virus in pigs must be contained and monitored.
The WHO pointed to the risk of further spread in humans after a herd of pigs in Canada was infected with the H1N1 flu strain, in what is believed to be the first instance of human to swine transmission, Canadian authorities said.
A total of 18 countries have reported 898 cases of human swine flu infections and 22 deaths, the WHO said, adding Italy to its list of affected countries, but not Colombia, which only reported its first case earlier Sunday.
The number of human deaths in Mexico from the virus was changed late Sunday to 22, while the tally of infected cases had increased to 568, Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said.
Cordova said anti-viral medicine was effective against the flu, and the public’s use of face-masks and hand-washing had limited the spread of the virus. Hospital admissions with flu-like symptoms were dropping.
The "epidemic is in its phase of decline," he said, adding that it had peaked between April 23 and 28.
But he warned the assessment was preliminary and that it was important "not to lower one’s guard."
Nevertheless, the prospect of the national flu emergency ending soon was viewed with relief across Mexico, the country at the epicenter of the global flu crisis .
Locals were increasingly chafing at restrictions that included the shutdown of schools, tourist sites and non-essential businesses, and, in the capital, the closure of bars, restaurants, clubs and cinemas.
As pork farmers in Canada insisted that their product was safe for consumption a day after some 200 animals at an Alberta farm were found to be infected with swine flu, WHO experts urged vigilant surveillance of animals in affected countries.
"We believe this is something that is necessary to understand better if animals are infected and, if they are, to both protect humans and further spread among the pig population," said food safety scientist, Peter Ben Embarek.
But he underlined that the risks came from contact with bodily fluids of animals, not processed or cooked meat, or matured raw ham.
Tensions spiked in Egypt over the financial impact of a pork ban, as riot police clashed with stone-throwing pig farmers trying to prevent their animals from being taken away for slaughter as part of a nationwide cull.
Seven policemen were slightly injured in the Moqattam clashes, a security official said, while at least eight demonstrators were hurt, according to the correspondent and a medic.
While the United States may have escaped the worst of a swine flu outbreak, top officials said, they stressed the real test would come when the winter influenza season hits in a few months.
The H1N1 flu virus was confirmed in more than half of the 50 US states, and officials said the World Health Organization was likely to soon raise its global pandemic alert to the maximum level of six.
There were 226 US cases confirmed in 30 states. El Salvador and Colombia also reported their first cases on Sunday.
"When you talk about level six, which they very well could go to this week, all that means is it’s widespread throughout the world," US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on CBS television.
In Mexico, authorities confirmed that relatives of a Bangladeshi man who was one of Mexico’s 19 swine flu fatalities were all free from infection.
China meanwhile canceled a chartered flight to pick up around 120 stranded Chinese citizens in Mexico, state media reported in Beijing.
The plane was to pick up Chinese citizens who had been due to head back to Shanghai on Sunday on an AeroMexico flight, but had been left stranded after China suspended flights from the flu-hit country, Xinhua said.
China had planned the rescue after a 25-year-old Mexican man tested positive for A(H1N1) flu in Hong Kong on Thursday after arriving there from Shanghai, where he had transferred from a flight from Mexico.
Mexican diplomats complained bitterly to China on Sunday, saying about 70 of their countrymen had been placed under quarantine despite showing no signs of swine flu.