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Global flu epidemic fear rises, more US cases

A new flu virus that has killed up to 81 people in Mexico could start a global epidemic, the World Health Organisation warned on Saturday as the disease spread further in the United States.

Mexico’s crowded capital of 20-million people, where most of the deaths have happened, hunkered down in fear and the government said it would isolate sick people if necessary.

The new flu strain — a mixture of swine, human and avian flu viruses — is still poorly understood. Although called swine flu, the current outbreak is only infecting humans.

There were 20 confirmed victims of the flu and 61 more whose deaths were likely caused by the virus, the Mexican government said. More than 1 300 people were believed to have been infected.

All schools in and around Mexico City and the central state of San Luis Potosi were ordered closed until May 6 and Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova called for bars, clubs, stadiums, movie theatres, churches and other religious centres to be shut to limit further infections.

”It’s about avoiding human contact,” Labour Minister Javier Lozano said.

While all of the deaths so far have been in Mexico, the flu is spreading in the United States.

Eleven cases have been confirmed in California, Kansas and Texas, and eight schoolchildren in New York City caught a type A influenza virus that was likely to be the swine flu, health officials said on Saturday.

The World Health Organisation declared the outbreaks a ”public health event of international concern” and said they could cause a pandemic — a global epidemic of serious disease.

The last flu pandemic was in 1968 when ”Hong Kong” flu killed about one million people globally.

A new pandemic would deal a major blow to a world economy already knocked into its worst recession in decades by the crisis in financial markets.

In Mexico City, one of the world’s biggest cities, parents cancelled children’s parties, bars were closed and residents stocked up on DVDs as people stayed home for the weekend to avoid contamination.

”I think it’s worse than they’re telling us,” said 35-year-old Lidia Diaz, sniffling and wearing a surgical mask as she headed to a clinic in the capital.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon issued an emergency decree giving the government special powers to run tests on sick people and order them to be isolated.

WHO director general Dr Margaret Chan urged all countries to boost their surveillance for any unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia.

”It has pandemic potential because it is infecting people,” Chan said in Geneva. ”However, we cannot say on the basis of currently available laboratory, epidemiological and clinical evidence whether or not it will indeed cause a pandemic.”

British health check
A British Airways cabin crew member was taken to a London hospital as a precaution after developing flu-like symptoms on a flight from Mexico City. It was the first such reported precautionary measure in Britain.

Argentina declared a health alert, requiring crew members and passengers arriving on flights from Mexico to advise immediately if they have any flu-like symptoms.

As far away as Hong Kong and Japan, health officials stepped up checks of travellers with flu-like symptoms. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said it was actively looking for new infections.

”We are worried and because we are worried we are acting aggressively on a number of fronts,” the CDC’s Dr Anne Schuchat told reporters. ”The situation is serious.”

In Mexico, most of the dead were aged 25 to 45, a worrying sign because a hallmark of past pandemics has been high fatalities among healthy young adults.

A significant worsening of the outbreak could hit tourism and consumer spending in Mexico, already weakened by the global economic crisis and an army-led war on drug cartels.

No countries or global bodies have issued travel bans to Mexico but some countries alerted travelers to check websites for information on the flu outbreak.

The WHO says the virus from 12 of the Mexican patients is genetically the same as a new strain of swine flu, designated H1N1, seen in the people in California and Texas, who have recovered. – Reuters

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