Mexico Back In Business Amid Flu Outbreak

Residents wear surgical masks as they exit the subway in Mexico City, Monday, April 27, 2009. Mexico's government is trying to stem the spread of a deadly strain of swine flu as a new work week begins by urging people to stay home Monday if they have any symptoms of the virus believed to have killed more than 100 people. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo
Mexican officials lowered their flu alert level in the capital on Monday, and plan to allow cafes, museums and libraries to reopen this week, while world health officials weighed raising their pandemic alert to the highest level.

Mexican officials declared the epidemic to be waning, announcing that Wednesday will conclude a five-day closure of nonessential businesses that was called to stop the spread of the new virus. Health officials need to finish inspecting schools before students can return to class. President Felipe Calderon said that higher education classes would resume Thursday and all other schools and government-run day care centers would reopen by May 11.

Global health experts however said it was too early to make lower guard, but there were no imminent plans to raise the pandemic alert level.

In New York on Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the World Health Organization "has no plan to raise the alert level to 6 at this moment." WHO chief Margaret Chan also told the U.N. General Assembly by videolink from Geneva that "we are not there yet."

In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais published Monday, Chan implied the agency might raise its alert. She played down the impact of going to level 6, saying she was concerned about causing unnecessary panic.

WHO spokesman Thomas Abraham said the comments appeared to be consistent with what the global body has said all along.

"We have consistently said a pandemic is imminent. It's only a matter of time before we move to phase 6 unless the virus suddenly becomes weaker and dies off," he said.

According to the WHO's pandemic phase definitions, being in level 5 means the agency believes a global outbreak is "imminent." Though Mexican authorities believe the outbreak may have peaked, WHO maintains it is still too early to tell if the outbreak is slowing down.

WHO also emphasized that a pandemic did not necessarily mean the disease was particularly deadly. The past two pandemics - in 1957 and 1968 - have been relatively mild. WHO said that the term pandemic refers to a disease's geographic spread - in all countries worldwide - rather than its severity.

The World Health Organization said Mexico had 590 cases of swine flu and 25 deaths from the virus. Cordova said the last confirmed death was April 29 and the illness apparently peaked in Mexico between April 23 and April 28.

While Mexico began its first steps toward normalcy, the virus spread to Colombia in the first confirmed case in South America, where flu season is about to begin. More cases were confirmed in North America and Europe - including Portugal's first - according to health and government officials.

With the scope of the disease unknown, several countries have taken urgent measures against arriving Mexicans or those who have recently traveled to Mexico.

In China, 71 Mexicans have been quarantined in hospitals and hotels, Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinoza said. Arriving Mexicans were taken into isolation, said Mexico's ambassador, Jorge Guajardo. Even the Mexican consul in Guangzhou was briefly held after returning from a vacation in Cambodia.

None of those in isolation has presented symptoms and most had no contact with infected persons or places, Guajardo said.

And in Hong Kong, 350 people remained isolated Monday in a hotel after a Mexican traveler there was determined to have swine flu.

"In many cases we have gotten reports that they were being quarantined for the sole fact that they had a Mexican passport, whether or not they came from Mexico, whether or not they had been in Mexico, whether or not they had been in contact with someone else from Mexico," Guajardo said.

Meanwhile, two American Airlines flight attendants and 35 passengers were detained in Japan after a sickened passenger prompted fears of the H1N1 virus, reported MSNBC Monday.

The sick passenger was being tested for the flu strain and the passengers and crew were removed to a nearby facility. The flight originated in Japan.

Back in Mexico, Calderon complained of what he called a backlash against Mexicans abroad, and his government said a chartered plane left Monday morning for China and will make stops in several cities to pick up any Mexican citizen wanting to return home.

"I think it's unfair that because we have been honest and transparent with the world some countries and places are taking repressive and discriminatory measures because of ignorance and disinformation," Calderon said.

"There are always people who are seizing on this pretext to assault Mexicans, even just verbally," he said, though he did not point to any country.

Espinoza planned to talk to Chinese officials about their policy toward Mexicans.

China's Foreign Ministry denied it was discriminating against Mexicans.

But the Mexican Embassy in Beijing sent a circular out to all its citizens saying China had imposed "measures of unjustified isolation" in response to swine flu and urging trips there to be canceled or postponed.

Espinoza also criticized Argentina, Peru and Cuba for banning flights to Mexico, and said Argentina was sending a plane to Mexico on Monday to pick up Argentines who want to leave Mexico.

CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports that Mexico's tourism industry is on life support. Officials say that 70 percent of hotel reservations in Cancun for this week have been canceled, and cruise ship companies have called off 64 port calls to the country.

Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said at a news conference Monday that Mexico had 727 cases of swine flu and 26 deaths from the virus.

About 300 cases of swine flu virus have been confirmed in 36 states so far in the United States, a count by The Associated Press shows.

U.S. confirmed cases from CDC or states: New York, 90; Texas, 43; California, 29; Delaware, 20; Arizona, 18; South Carolina, 15; Illinois, nine; Colorado, Louisiana, Massachusetts and New Jersey, seven; Florida, five; Alabama and Maryland, four; Indiana, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia and Wisconsin, three; Connecticut, Kansas and Michigan, two; and one each in Nebraska, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Idaho and Utah.

The CDC's acting chief, Dr. Richard Besser, said swine flu is spreading just as easily as regular winter flu.

"The good news is when we look at this virus right now, we're not seeing some of the things in the virus that have been associated in the past with more severe flu," Besser said. "That's encouraging, but it doesn't mean we're out of the woods yet."

Cordes reports that in the United States, the number of school closed spiked to 533, leaving nearly 350,000 children sitting at home.

In Alberta, Canada, officials quarantined about 220 pigs infected by a worker who recently returned from Mexico. It was the first documented case of the H1N1 virus being passed from a human to another species. Canada stressed that pigs often get the flu and there is no danger in eating pork.

Cordova presented the most comprehensive description yet of the dead in Mexico.

He said 15 were female and seven were men. One possible explanation could be that women get poorer health care in Mexico because of its male-dominated culture, he said. Cordova also said only 4 percent were unemployed; the rest either had jobs or were housewives and students. More than 50 percent had not graduated from high school and only 11 percent had university education.

Pablo Kuri, an epidemiologist advising Cordova, told The Associated Press that tests have confirmed a swine flu death in Mexico City on April 11, two days earlier than what had been believed to be the first death.

Kuri also said there were no deaths among health care workers treating swine flu patients in Mexico, an indication that the virus may not be as contagious or virulent as initially feared.

2009 H1N1 Flu Outbreak Map:
This is a map depicting confirmed and suspected cases of the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, with contributors from all over the world, from a variety of backgrounds including health, journalism, technology.

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