- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2009

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Slamming China’s quarantine of 70 Mexican tourists as discrimination, Mexico announced it was chartering a plane Monday to bring its citizens home. Mexican officials also declared the swine flu epidemic to be waning, but medical experts worldwide said it was to early to make that call.

Mexico’s health chief said officials will decide later Monday whether to reopen businesses and schools or extend the shutdown that has helped choke off the spread of swine flu but caused untold harm to Mexico’s economy. The swine flu continued to spread around the world, with new cases Monday in Spain, France, El Salvador and New Zealand.

President Felipe Calderon said a nationwide shutdown and an aggressive informational campaign appeared to have helped curtail the outbreak in Mexico. His health secretary said the government is starting preparations for people to return to classes and work.

“We have succeeded in detaining or at least slowing the spread of the virus precisely because the measures have been the correct ones,” Calderon said in an interview with state television broadcast Sunday night.

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

While Mexico began its first tentative steps toward a return to normalcy, the virus spread to Colombia in the first confirmed case in South America, worrisome because the flu season is about to begin in the Southern Hemisphere.

More cases were confirmed in North America, Central America, Europe and Asia, with the total number sickened worldwide rising to at least 1,033 people, according to health and government officials.

Health officials raised the number of confirmed U.S. swine flu cases to 245 in 35 states late Sunday. The new number, up from 160 on Saturday, reflects streamlining in federal procedures and the results of tests by states, which have only recently begun confirming cases, said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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.” Other experts agreed with that assessment.

“Certainly, maybe, this current round of activity has peaked, but we are only 10 days into this outbreak,” WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told reporters in Switzerland. “I think we would want to wait a while before making a definitive decision.”

In Alberta, Canada, officials quarantined about 220 pigs that became infected from a worker who had 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.

China quarantined more than 70 Mexican travelers in hospitals and hotels there, and Mexicans on arriving flights were being 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.

Calderon complained of the backlash against Mexicans abroad.

“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.

The president did not single out any country. But the Foreign Relations Department said afterward that Mexico was sending a chartered jet Monday to bring back any citizens who wanted to leave China. China’s Foreign Ministry denied it was discriminating against Mexicans.

Elsewhere in Asia, Hong Kong isolated 274 people in a hotel after a Mexican traveler there was determined to have swine flu, reducing the number from an earlier estimate of about 350.

Cordova said Mexico’s government would start distributing swine flu safety recommendations to businesses, but warned the national lockdown would not be lifted in one fell swoop.

The reopening “will not happen just like that,” Cordova said at a news conference. “There will have to be training, preparations for teachers and parents.”

Possible safety recommendations would be that there be a 6 1/2-foot (2-meter) distance kept between people in restaurants or theaters and that workers be urged to wear masks on the subway. 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 have been 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.

According to tallies by the CDC, World Health Organization and governments, there were 101 confirmed cases of swine flu in Canada; 44 in Spain; 18 in Britain; eight in Germany; six in New Zealand; four each in Israel and France; two each in El Salvador and Italy; one each in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ireland, Switzerland, South Korea, Austria, Hong Kong, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Associated Press writers Christopher Bodeen in Beijing, Bradley S. Klapper in Zurich and Alexandra Olson, Paul Haven and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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