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Costa Rican leader has swine flu

SAN JOSE, Aug 12 – Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has contracted swine flu, becoming the world’s first known leader to have fallen ill with the virus.

"The pandemic doesn’t discriminate," Arias said in a statement on Tuesday. "I am one more case in the country, and I am subject to the same recommendations that the health authorities have established for all the population."

The 67-year-old’s brother and chief of staff, Rodrigo Arias, earlier told a shocked nation that the president must remain isolated at home for at least a week, but will not delegate power during his absence.

President Arias, a Nobel laureate who suffers from chronic asthma, was said to have had flu-like symptoms for some days, prompting medical tests.

"After feeling a sore throat, headache and temperature, the president asked for a test and today (Tuesday) they confirmed he had contracted the A(H1N1) influenza virus," said Rodrigo Arias.

The veteran leader has recently been spearheading international efforts to resolve the crisis in Honduras, meeting rival factions who have clashed since President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a military-backed coup in June.

Mayi Antillon, a spokeswoman for the Costa Rican government, said Arias would continue to work from home.

"He does not want to deceive the population," she said explaining the decision to make his illness public.

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Arias, who insists he is not a neoliberal but rather "a modern social democrat" who wants Costa Rica to "become in 20 years Latin America’s foremost developed country," first became president in 1986.

During his first four-year term he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for negotiating peace accords which helped bring an end to Central America’s many military conflicts.

After a 16-year absence from the presidential palace, he began a second term in office in 2006, following a narrow election victory in which he squeaked by his rival, center-left economist Otton Solis, by 18,000 votes.

Between his two presidential terms, Arias nurtured his Arias Peace Foundation, which promotes demilitarization, as in Costa Rica, which has no standing army.

Arias has been thrust back into the international spotlight through his mediation in Honduras, meeting many of the main players in the Western Hemisphere.

He has produced a plan calling for Zelaya’s return to office and early elections, proposals that have so far been rejected by the interim government.

A business tycoon with coffee and sugar plantations and interests in a financial group, his current term expires on May 8, 2010.

Twenty-seven people have died as a result of the virus in Costa Rica, and about 800 people have been infected.

The World Health Organization on Tuesday said 1,462 people had died from swine flu, and that infections were starting to decline in the southern hemisphere but picking up in several Asian countries.

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By comparison, seasonal flu causes about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths a year, and results in about three to five million cases of severe illness, according to the WHO.

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