/ 3 May 2009

Mexico says flu epidemic past peak

Mexico’s flu epidemic has passed its peak, the Mexican government said on Sunday, and experts said the new H1N1 swine virus still could impact world health but may be no more severe than normal flu.

Mexican Health Minister José Ángel Córdova warned, however, it was too early for Mexico — the epicenter of an outbreak that has spread to 19 countries — to let down its guard.

Córdova said the outbreak of H1N1 flu appeared to have peaked in Mexico between April 23 and 28 and fewer people had admitted themselves to hospitals with serious flu symptoms in the past few days.

”The evolution of the epidemic is now in its phase of descent,” Cordova told a news conference in Mexico City, where millions of people had heeded government advice to stay at home. ”There is evidence that we are going downward.”

After days of alarm and a partial shutdown of the economy that had kept streets eerily quiet, the atmosphere in Mexico’s capital appeared more relaxed on Sunday, with some people venturing out on bikes or running. Many no longer wore masks. As testing improves, Mexican authorities have scaled back their estimate of how many people could have died from the flu strain to over 100, down from 176. Only 19 deaths in Mexico are confirmed as being caused by this flu.

But new cases of the virus, which mixes swine, avian and human flu strains, still were being tracked across the world, keeping alive fears of the threat of a pandemic. Experts stressed that the term ”pandemic” describes geographic spread and does not categorize severity of illness.

The WHO said its laboratories had identified 787 H1N1 flu infections in 17 countries, including Ireland. Its toll lags national reports but is considered more scientifically secure.

Colombia became the latest country to report a confirmed case of the disease.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said on Sunday the new flu had spread to 30 US states and infected 226 people.

But CDC acting director Richard Besser said on Sunday there were ”encouraging signs” that the new strain was not more severe than what would be seen during normal seasonal flu.

But he added he still expected the virus to have a ”significant impact” on people’s health. ”We’re not out of the woods,” Besser told Fox News Sunday.

The US government said on Sunday it hoped to have a vaccine ready for the new flu strain by the autumn.

In Britain, Health Secretary Alan Johnson said the spread of the new flu strain had been contained there.

In Geneva, a World Health Organisation spokesman said its emergency committee currently had no meeting scheduled to review its global alert for the H1N1 flu, which it set last week to five, one notch below pandemic level.

”We cannot lower our guard,” the spokesperson said.

US health officials said the new virus appeared to be fairly widespread in the United States and seemed to be hitting mostly younger people, with very few cases reported in those over 50.

Health officials and scientists from around the world have increasingly been focusing on how the new mutated, mongrel flu strain may be passed between animals and humans.

The WHO said on Sunday flu surveillance should be increased in both humans and animals now that the latest H1N1 strain was found to have infected pigs in Canada.

Canadian health officials said a traveler carried the virus from Mexico to Canada and infected his family and a pig herd.

Mexico has seen a stabilisation of serious cases in the past few days, bringing some relief to its population, millions of whom have stayed indoors in line with a government order for non-essential businesses to remain closed until Wednesday.

Córdova said the five-day shutdown would be reviewed on Monday.

”We’ve been indoors since Friday. So now we’ve come out to enjoy some fresh air,” secretary Silvia Rodriguez told Reuters, relaxing with her companion Mario Rojas on the grass of a central park in Mexico City, their bikes parked beside them.

Some countries were taking few chances to halt infection.

A Mexican Embassy official in China said Chinese authorities were quarantining more than 50 Mexican business people and tourists after some showed flu symptoms.

The Chinese measures have triggered a diplomatic dispute with Mexico, which says they are unfair and discriminatory. Beijing said its steps were justified and lawful.

Asia’s trade and tourism could be hit by the latest flu outbreak but lessons learned from the Sars epidemic in 2003 would boost efforts to counter the effects. Sars, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, killed more than 800 people around the world in 2003 after first appearing in southern China.

Scientists are still trying to assess how the new H1N1 virus behaves and compares to regular seasonal flu strains, which kill between 250 000 and 500 000 globally every year. – Reuters