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Mexico takes new swine flu precautions as pandemic concerns spread

Mexicans took new precautions Sunday, Apr. 26, amid fears that a new flu epidemic believed to have killed up to 81 people in the country could reach "pandemic" proportions and spread to the United States and worldwide.

A security guard wearing a face mask in Mexico City.

Mexico has increased precautionary measures

Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova raised the probable death toll from the new multi-strain swine flu in Mexico to 81, including 20 already confirmed.

Earlier, Mexican President Felipe Calderon published an order giving his government extraordinary powers to tackle the deadly outbreak, as at least two new cases were reported in the United States, bringing the total infected there to 10.

"This virus has clearly a pandemic potential," Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, said on Saturday.

The Geneva-based UN agency branded the outbreak "a public health emergency of international concern," following a meeting of its emergency committee.

In a statement it said it was recommending that all nations "intensify surveillance for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia."

In Mexico, 13 new suspect cases were reported in the past 24 hours and a total of 1,324 patients with flu symptoms were under investigation, Health Minister Cordova said.

Since April 13, "there have been 81 registered deaths which are probably linked to the virus of which only 20 cases have virological checks," Cordova told a news conference after meeting with health officials from across the country.

The Mexico government has upped emergency measures that were put into place only on Friday.

Officials have canceled hundreds of public events and closed schools for millions of students in and around the capital.

Apart from the capital, four other deaths were reported in central, northwest and southern Mexico.

Mexico City authorities have said they had more than one million doses of suitable antiviral drugs in an urban area of some 20 million.

The government also assured citizens it had "sufficient" funds reaching $450 million to combat the epidemic.

Jumping the border

Across the northern border, health authorities in the central US state of Kansas confirmed two cases of swine flu on Saturday, bringing the total number of cases in the United States to at least 10.

Mexicans in masks in the metro

Fears that swine flu will travel are being realized

One of the victims was still ill while the other had recovered, Kansas health authorities said. One of the patients had recently traveled to Mexico.

"Both persons ... became ill with the same unique (H1N1) strain of swine flu that has been identified in Mexico, California and Texas," Kansas officials said in a statement.

Earlier on Saturday New York officials said eight to nine students at a New York City school were suspected of having swine flu, although test results are still pending.

"With infections in as many different communities as we're seeing, we don't think that containment is feasible," said Anne Schuchat of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC said some Mexican victims had died from the same new strain of swine flu that affected eight people in Texas and California.

Dave Daigle of the CDC said a bird flu strain, two swine flu strains and a human strain had combined for the first time.

"The most worrying fact is that it appears to transmit from human to human," said WHO spokesman Thomas Abraham.

These features, along with the fact that young, healthy adults have fallen victim in Mexico instead of the very old or very young, have given rise to fears of an epidemic or even a pandemic.

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.

If a pig is simultaneously infected with a human and an avian influenza virus, it can serve as a "mixing vessel" for the two viruses that could combine to create a new, more virulent strain.

Travelers returning with symptoms

Meanwhile ten New Zealand college students who tested positive for influenza on Sunday, a day after returning from Mexico, are likely to have swine flu, Health Minister Tony Ryall said.

A Mexican soldier hands out surgical masks to people in the Zocalo plaza in Mexico City, Saturday, April 25, 2009.

Other countries will take similar precautions to those in Mexico

"Ministry of Health officials advise me there is no guarantee these students have swine influenza, but they consider it likely," Ryall told reporters. "All precautions are being taken to allow for this. However, I am also informed none of the affected patients are considered seriously ill, and most in fact seem to be on the road to recovery," he added.

In France, health authorities have found two suspected cases of swine flu in travelers returning from Mexico and others are expected to follow, the country's top health official said in an interview Sunday.

"We do have suspicions, but these have not been confirmed, about two people who have returned from Mexico," general health director Didier Houssin told Le Parisien newspaper.

"There will certainly not be a lack of other cases in the coming days because there have been a lot of flights and boat trips" from Mexico, he added, saying that he "would not rule out that a sick person, and therefore potentially contagious, could enter France."

Elsewhere, a British Airways steward admitted to hospital with "flu-like symptoms" after arriving on a flight from Mexico City does not have swine flu, the hospital said Sunday.

"I can confirm he does not have swine flu. All the tests have come back negative," a spokesman at Northwick Park hospital said. A BA spokesman said Saturday the man was on flight BA242 from Mexico City which had landed at London's main Heathrow Airport.

The Health Protection Agency stressed that he was undergoing tests "as a precautionary measure."

US public health emergency

The White House said on Sunday that the US now has 20 confirmed cases of swine flu in five states, including New York, California, Texas, Kansas and Ohio.

The US has declared a public health emergency Sunday in the wake of the outbreak and will screen visitors arriving from infected areas, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said.

The declaration will start the flow of aid to states and communities that might be affected by the outbreak.

Health officials Sunday also confirmed that eight New York school students were diagnosed with a swine flu similar to the strain blamed for dozens of deaths in Mexico.

About 100 students began feeling ill at a New York school last week and nine swabs were taken from them. Eight tests were positive, the city's health department said.

However, the students only suffered mild symptoms and most were now recovering.

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