- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2009

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Dozens of Mexican nationals quarantined in China despite having no swine flu symptoms arrived home Wednesday on a government-chartered jet, some complaining of “humiliation and discrimination” by the Chinese. But as Mexicans emerged from their own five-day swine flu shutdown, the death toll rose and many remained fearful.

Mexico City showed more of its usual ebullience during a raucous morning rush hour. Thousands of newspaper vendors, salesmen hawking trinkets and panhandlers dropped their protective masks and added to the familiar din of truck horns and street music. Cafes accepted sitting customers, and many corporate offices reopened.

Construction worker Roberto Reyes, 36, walked through the capital’s Chapultepec subway station without a protective mask.

“The news says all of this is over, so I got rid of my mask, and a lot of people are doing the same in the streets,” he said.

Many others worried about Mexico letting its guard down too quickly, especially with high schools and universities reopening Thursday, and primary schools reopening next week.

Mexico’s shutdown was designed to reduce the spread of the virus at its epicenter, and deaths did slow as the country mobilized an aggressive public health response to the epidemic that has gone on to sicken nearly 1,900 people in 21 countries.

But the virus keeps setting off more health alarms. A pregnant 33-year-old teacher in Texas who fell into a coma and had her baby delivered by Cesarean section became the first U.S. resident to die of swine flu. And Mexico announced a jump in the confirmed death toll Wednesday to 42 after testing backlogged cases.

Two of those deaths were from Tuesday. While the rate of new cases and hospitalizations has declined, epidemiologists said the virus has spread throughout Mexico. “We have seen a tendency (of the outbreak) to diminish, but not disappear,” Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said.

The Texas woman had chronic medical conditions, as did a Mexico City toddler who died of swine flu last week during a visit to Houston, health officials said. Her district said it would close schools until Monday as a precaution.

Mexico criticized China’s quarantine of its citizens as discriminatory, and First lady Margarita Zavala was up before dawn to greet the 136 passengers at Mexico City’s international airport. Authorities said 72 had been in Shanghai, 18 in Beijing, 34 in Guangzhou and 12 in Hong Kong. None had flu symptoms, Mexican diplomats said.

“It was discrimination and humiliation in my case,” said Myrna Berlanga, who said she was taken off a flight from the United States by Chinese officials and put in a mobile laboratory for five hours without food, water or a bathroom. “They took me out because of my passport,” she said.

Maria Lourdes Castaneda traveled to Hong Kong for a trade show. “Nobody wanted to give us a hotel room,” she said. “The manager of the Ramada kicked us out and told us there weren’t any rooms.”

Several other Mexican passengers said they were treated well despite being quarantined for four days.

China has defended its measures to block the virus from entering the world’s most populous nation and says it will continue strident checks on travelers from regions hit by swine flu. Its foreign ministry denied singling out Mexicans and said it hoped Mexico would “address the issue in an objective and calm manner.”

China had earlier canceled the only direct flights between China and Mexico, a twice weekly service by Aeromexico.

“This is purely a question of health inspection and quarantine,” ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said Monday.

Lin Ji, a health official with China’s health department in Jilin province, said the government had decided to lift a quarantine for a group of Canadian students two days early, following pressure from Canada.

In Hong Kong, 34 passengers who arrived on a flight from Shanghai with a Mexican swine flu patient April 30 will be released from quarantine Thursday, Secretary for Food and Health York Chow said. Their nationalities weren’t immediately clear.

Doctors were still running tests on the Mexican patient. Chow said he was in stable condition.

Dr. David Nabarro, senior U.N. coordinator for influenza, said countries must explain to WHO their rationale for quarantines and trade restrictions, saying their effectiveness is minimal at best.

“We want to be very clear that the World Health Organization is not recommending travel restrictions related to the outbreak of this novel influenza,” Nabarro said.

Elsewhere Wednesday, Swedish authorities confirmed the Scandinavian country’s first swine flu case — a woman who recently visited the United States. The Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control said the woman, in her 50s, has recovered.

Before the Mexican nationals came home, about 20 Chinese businessmen and students, each wearing surgical masks, left the border city of Tijuana on a Chinese government flight. They had been stranded when China canceled all direct flights to Mexico.

Mexico’s government had imposed the five-day shutdown to curb the flu’s spread, particularly in this metropolis of 20 million where the outbreak sickened the most people. Capital residents overwhelmingly complied — other towns less — and government officials hailed the drastic experiment as a success.

Some, however, again urged caution. “We can’t make a prediction of what’s going to happen,” said Dr. Ethel Palacios, deputy director of the swine flu monitoring effort in Mexico City.

Mexican Finance Secretary Agustin Carstens unveiled plans Tuesday to stimulate key industries and fight foreign bans on Mexican pork products. He said persuading tourists to come back is a top priority.

Carstens said the outbreak cost Mexico’s economy at least $2.2 billion, and he announced a $1.3 billion stimulus package, mostly for tourism and small businesses, the sectors hardest hit by the epidemic.

The World Health Organization said it was shipping 2.4 million treatments of anti-flu drugs to 72 countries “most in need,” and France sent 100,000 doses worth $1.7 million to Mexico.

___

Associated Press writers Mark Stevenson, James Anderson and Katherine Corcoran contributed to this report.

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