World battles to curb deadly flu strain


World battles to curb deadly Mexico flu strain

By Catherine Bremer

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Governments around the world took steps Tuesday to curb the spread of a new strain of flu that has killed up to 149 people in Mexico in a couple of weeks and spread to Europe and possibly Asia.

In Asia, financial markets were on edge over the risk the flu could develop into a pandemic and kill off fragile signs of recovery in the global economy after the World Health Organization raised its alert level for the outbreak.

No one has died outside Mexico but more than 50 infected people have been found in the United States, six in Canada and three across the Atlantic in Spain and Scotland. Possible cases were being tested as far away as Norway and South Korea.

The swine flu bug is curable if treated quickly with antiviral medicine but no one is naturally immune and the WHO has lifted its pandemic alert to phase 4, indicating the risk of a deadly global outbreak.

“This can be interpreted as a significant step toward pandemic influenza, but also it is a phase which says that we are not there yet,” acting WHO Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda told a teleconference Monday.

Most Asian stock markets slipped into negative territory after tentative early gains, and the yen climbed to a seven-week high against the euro and a one-month high versus the dollar as investors cut their exposure to riskier currencies.

Drug stocks extended Monday’s gains while airline stocks were hit once again. Oil dropped a further 1 percent, sinking below $50 a barrel.

TAKING ACTION

Governments around the world have taken steps to tighten monitoring of their airports or advised against non-essential travel to Mexico.

Britain, France, Germany and the United States issued travel alerts for Mexico, which relies on tourism as its No. 3 source of foreign currency. Japan advised its citizens in Mexico to consider returning home soon, saying they might find themselves unable to leave and not be able to get adequate medical care.

China vowed to disclose any human cases of swine fever promptly, while state-run newspapers urged officials to be open and avoid the kind of cover-ups that brought panic during the SARS epidemic in 2003.

The last pandemic, a Hong Kong flu outbreak in 1968, killed about one million people around the world.

Mexicans from company directors to delivery men on tricycles wore face masks while airlines checked passengers for flu symptoms.

“We will defeat this threat,” Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard vowed late Monday as several hundred people suspected to be suffering from the flu were treated in hospitals and life in the normally hectic capital took on an eerie hush.

Mexico City shut restaurants, bars, cinemas, stadiums, gyms and some government offices to stop the infection from spreading.

Unsure how worried they should be, people stocked up on food, drinking water, rental movies and surgical masks and canceled hair appointments. Some opted to work from home and schools were closed across the country until May 6.

Facing a dent to tourism and trade — key motors of an economy that is already tipping into recession with the global downturn — Mexico said it would not order a mass closure of businesses to try to contain the infection.

“Economic activity must continue,” Labor Minister Javier Lozano told a news conference Monday evening.

NO VACCINE

Worldwide, seasonal flu kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people in an average year. The new strain is worrying as it spreads rapidly between humans and there is no vaccine for it.

Most of the fatalities have been people aged between 20 and 50, an ominous sign because a hallmark of past pandemics has been the high rate of fatalities among young adults.

Mexican media have speculated the flu may have originated at a pig farm in the tropical southeastern state of Veracruz.

But Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said the first case that alerted authorities to a possible rogue flu strain was in the southern state of Oaxaca. He said it was too early to identify the cause or geographical source of the virus.

Officials say the virus is not caught from eating pig meat products but several countries banned U.S. pork imports.

The heavy volume of visitors to Mexico only underscores the risk of contagion. Airlines fly more than 1 million passenger seats in and out of Mexico’s international airport each week.

The flu crisis, which blew up over the weekend, also rocked financial markets Monday, hitting oil prices, the dollar, Mexico’s peso and airline stocks.

Uncertainty over the swine flu outbreak could get soured recent optimism that trillions of dollars injected into the world economy might soon start to slow the global downturn.

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