Mexico flu cases easing but pandemic still likely

Mexico’s flu outbreak appeared to be easing with a fall in serious cases, the government said, but world health officials warned the unpredictable virus could still become a pandemic.

“Each day there are fewer serious cases and the mortality has been decreasing,” Health Minister José Ángel Córdova told a news conference in Mexico City, where millions were heeding government advice to stay at home.

Of the more than 100 suspected deaths from the new H1N1 virus that have emerged in Mexico, 19 had been confirmed, Córdova said. Mexico had already scaled back from its original estimate of 176 suspected deaths.

However, new cases of the mongrel virus, which mixes swine, avian and human flu strains, were still being tracked across the world. Costa Rica, Italy and Ireland confirmed cases of the disease, which has now been found in 18 countries.

In Geneva, the World Health Organisation said H1N1 influenza had not spread in a sustained way outside North America, as required before the pandemic alert is raised to its highest level.
But it said that would probably happen soon.

“I would still propose that a pandemic is imminent because we are seeing the disease spread,” Michael Ryan, WHO director of Global Alert and Response, told a briefing on Saturday.

Few are ready to take chances with the new virus, widely dubbed swine flu.

In Hong Kong, police quarantined a hotel for one week after a Mexican guest was found to have the virus. Mexico called Friday’s action “unjustified” and advised its citizens to avoid travel to China.

China’s Foreign Ministry had no immediate response.

Hong Kong is under Chinese control but has its own government. The authorities in Hong Kong have confined around 300 guests and staff in the hotel.

Asia’s trade and tourism could be hit by the flu outbreak but lessons from the Sars epidemic in 2003 would boost efforts to counter the effects, Jong-Wha Lee, the acting chief economist at the Asian Development Bank, said on Sunday.

“I think Asia has been well prepared because the region has good experience in countering Sars,” Lee said on the Indonesian island of Bali where the ADB was holding its annual meeting.

Sars, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, killed more than 800 people around the world in 2003. It first appeared in southern China in late 2002 and began spreading in February 2003.

Fewer patients with fevers
Mexican authorities said earlier they believed the situation with the new flu outbreak was stabilising as fewer patients with severe symptoms were checking into hospitals.

The WHO said 15 countries had reported 615 infections, not including the reports of confirmed cases in Ireland, Italy and Costa Rica. The United States, the second hardest-hit nation, has confirmed 160 cases in 21 states.

But public hospitals in Mexico have noted a steady drop in patients turning up with fevers, suggesting the infection rate may be declining as people use hand gel and avoid crowds.

US officials said they were encouraged by the developments in Mexico but added it was too early to relax.

“We are remaining vigilant,” said Dr Anne Schuchat of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have seen times where things appear to be getting better and then get worse again. ... I think in Mexico we may be holding our breath for some time.”

Almost all infections outside Mexico have been mild. The only death in another country has been a Mexican toddler who was taken to the United States before he became ill.

President Barack Obama said the United States was responding to the new flu strain, closing some schools temporarily and distributing antiviral drug supplies as needed.

Scientists are still trying to assess how the new virus behaves and compares to regular seasonal flu strains, which kill between 250 000 and 500 000 globally every year.

WHO hiked its alert level to five from three last week—the last step before a pandemic—due to the flu’s spread and the threat it could target poor and disease-prone communities. - Reuters

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