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Alistair Bell, Daniel Trotta05 May 2009 07:43
Mexico will resume normal business operations this week after easing its swine flu restrictions, but the global flu alert triggered a trade dispute on Monday over widening bans on Mexican, United States and Canadian pork.
More than 1 200 cases of the new H1N1 virus have been detected in 21 nations, keeping alive fears of a possible pandemic, although scientists say this flu strain does not appear to be any more deadly than seasonal flu.
To date, 27 deaths have been confirmed, 26 in Mexico, the epicentre of the outbreak, and one in the United States.
Health experts, citing precedents such as the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that killed millions, warn that the latest epidemic could attack more violently a few months from now.
While the new H1N1 virus is not foodborne, fears of cross-border contagion stirred up international trade tensions after about 20 nations banned imports of pigs, pork and other meat from the United States, Canada and Mexico, the three most flu-affected countries.
Canada threatened to take China to the World Trade Organisation unless Beijing backed down from its ban on imports of pigs and pork from Alberta province, where a herd of pigs was found to have the H1N1 strain.
Despite the march of the disease across the world, Mexico has decided it is over the worst of a flu outbreak that had almost emptied the streets of its capital, one of the world’s biggest cities, as millions of people stayed at home.
Health Minister José Ángel Córdova said on Monday the government would lift the precautionary five-day shutdown it had imposed on public and business activities on May 1.
“[We will] resume, as planned, activities in the public and private sector on May 6 with recommendations on matters of health and hygiene at the work place,” Cordova said.
Mexican schools will remain closed until May 11.
Virus spreads in US
An International Labor Organisation official, Jean Maninat, said the flu epidemic would hurt employment in Latin America, hitting tourism and airline sectors the hardest.
Carnival Cruise Lines said on Monday it had cancelled all Mexico port visits for 16 of its ships until June 15 due to the flu alert.
European finance ministers said they saw no evidence the H1N1 flu was hurting Europe’s economy.
While US hog futures fell on Monday over the flu alert, Mexico’s peso made its biggest gains in over six months and stocks jumped as health fears eased there.
With infections of the new H1N1 flu strain cropping up across the globe, the World Health Organisation wavered over whether it might declare a full pandemic alert.
WHO chief Margaret Chan said the apparent good news from Mexico over the epidemic had to be treated with caution.
“Flu viruses are very unpredictable,” she said.
Before issuing a level six pandemic alert, WHO would need to see the virus spreading within communities in Europe or Asia.
“We are not there yet ... No one can say right now how the pandemic will evolve, or indeed whether we are going into a pandemic,” Chan told a UN General Assembly session.
The worry among global health experts is that the fast-mutating flu could return with a vengeance.
“If we don’t pay attention to this outbreak as a bad actor, we could be very, very sorry,“said Dr CJ Peters, a microbiologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and specialist in emerging infectious diseases.
In the United States, the second biggest focus of infection after Mexico, the new virus has now infected 286 people in 36 states, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said.
“We are seeing over 700 probable cases in a total of 44 states,” the CDC’s acting director, Richard Besser, said.
So far, 99% of probable cases have, upon further testing, turned out to be the new H1N1 strain, he added.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón has said the outbreak that has sickened 701 people in the country is stabilising.
Many Mexicans, chafing after days of isolation at home, are desperate to get back to work after a period of inactivity that has hit family incomes at a time of global recession.
“It’s going to be a disaster if this carries on,” said Martin Velasquez (28) a construction worker.
In a brewing diplomatic dispute between Mexico and China over the treatment of Mexican citizens caught up in the flu alert, Mexico was sending a plane to retrieve dozens of its nationals quarantined by Chinese authorities.
Mexico accused Beijing of discrimination against Mexicans, but China’s Foreign Ministry rejected the criticism.
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