Mexico orders shutdown


Mexico's president told citizens to stay home from tomorrow for a five-day partial shutdown of the economy, after the World Health Organisation raised its alert level.

Leaders on both sides of the US-Mexico border urged citizens to take precautions while new cases of the H1N1 swine flu virus were reported in the United States, Latin America and in Europe.

"There is no safer place than your own home to avoid being infected with the flu virus," Mexican president Felipe Calderon said in his first televised address since the start of an outbreak which has killed up to 176 people in Mexico and is now spreading around the world.

Global markets appeared to be taking the flu news in their stride, and Wall Street opened stronger on hopes that the US recession is easing. But in Mexico, officials were taking no chances.

Mr Calderon told government offices and private businesses not crucial to the economy to stop work tomorrow to avoid further spreading a virus that appears to be striking young, old, rich and poor without discrimination.

The first swine flu death outside Mexico took place in Texas, where, a 22-month-old visiting Mexican boy died. Almost all those infected outside Mexico have had mild symptoms, and only a handful of people have been admitted to hospital.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said on its website today that there were now 114 confirmed cases and that New York was lead the case tally with 50, while Texas reported 26 and California 14. South Carolina had confirmed 10 new cases and New Jersey had five, it said. However, officials urged prudence but said drastic measures such as closing the Mexico border were impractical.

"Which borders do we close? Do we close the Canadian border too? Do we close flights coming from countries in Europe where it's been identified now? We're told that is not an efficacious use of our effort. We should be focusing on mitigation," Vice President Joe Biden said in a television interview, echoing comments yesterday by President Barack Obama.

Mr Biden was later prompted to retract comments in which he said he would tell his family to stay out of airplanes and subways to avoid the flu.

Worldwide, 12 countries have reported cases of the H1N1 strain, with the Netherlands the latest to join the list. It said a three year-old who had recently returned from Mexico had contracted the virus.

Switzerland also confirmed its first case today in a man returning from Mexico. Peru reported what appeared to be the first case in Latin America outside Mexico, also in someone who had been to the country.

The World Health Organisation said today there was no evidence today that it should raise its pandemic alert to the highest level due to a swine flu outbreak.

Acting WHO assistant director-general, Keiji Fukuda also told reporters in Geneva that Swiss drugmaker Roche indicated it was stepping up production of Tamiflu to deal with the infection. Two antiviral drugs - Tamiflu and Relenza, made by GlaxoSmithKline - have been shown to work against the H1N1 strain.

Yesterday, the WHO raised its pandemic alert level to phase 5, indicating a global outbreak was imminent. That is a notch below the agency's highest alert level. "Today that evidence holds steady," Mr Fukuda said.

The WHO recommended all countries track any suspect cases and ensure medical workers dealing with them wear protective masks and gloves. But it stopped short of recommending travel restrictions, border closures or any limitation on the movement of people, goods or services.

France said it would seek a European Union ban on flights to Mexico. The EU, the United States and Canada have advised against non-essential travel to Mexico, and many tourists were hurrying to leave, crowding airports.

Masato Tashiro, head of the influenza virus research centre at Japan's National Institute of Infectious Disease and a member of the WHO emergency committee, told Japan's Nikkeinewspaper it appeared the H1N1 strain was far less dangerous than avian flu.

"The virus is relatively weak and about the same as regular influenza viruses passed on via human-to-human contact. I don't believe it will become virulent," he was quoted as saying. "The threat to health from the avian influenza and its fatality rate is much greater than the new flu.

"I am very worried that we will use up the stockpile of anti-flu medicine and be unarmed before we need to fight against the avian influenza. The greatest threat to mankind remains the H5N1 avian influenza."