H1N1 Swine flu in 2009
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A group of nuns walk wearing surgical masks in the Zocalo plaza in Mexico
City, Saturday, April 25, 2009

Deadly swine flu hits California, Texas and Kansas

 

The World Health Organization said the strange new flu that has killed as many as 68 and perhaps sickened more than 1,000, has become a “public health emergency of international concern” and asked countries around the world to step up reporting and surveillance of the disease and implement a coordinated response to contain it.

Mexicans were dying for weeks before U.S. scientists identified the strain — a combination of swine, bird and human influenza that people may have no natural immunity to. Now, even controlling passengers at airports and bus stations may not keep it from spreading, epidemiologists say.

The disease has already reached Texas, California and Kansas, and 24 new suspected cases were reported Saturday in Mexico City alone, where authorities suspended schools and all public events until further notice. More than 500 concerts, sporting events and other gatherings were canceled in the metropolis of 20 million.

Early detection and treatment are key to stopping any outbreak. WHO guidance calls for isolating the sick and blanketing everyone around them with antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu.

Now, with patients showing up all across Mexico and its teeming capital, simple math suggests that kind of response is impossible.  Mexico appears to have lost valuable days or weeks in detecting the new virus.

Health authorities started noticing a threefold spike in flu cases in late March and early April, but they thought it was a late rebound in the December-February flu season.

Testing at domestic labs did not alert doctors here to the new strain, although U.S. authorities detected an outbreak in California and Texas last week.

Airports around the world were screening travelers from Mexico for flu symptoms. But containing the disease may not be an option, because more than 1,000 people have been infected in as many as 14 of Mexico’s 32 states, according to daily newspaper El Universal.

“Anything that would be about containing it right now would purely be a political move,” said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota pandemic expert.

World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan said the outbreak of the never-before-seen virus has “pandemic potential.” But she said it is still too early to tell if it would become a pandemic.

This swine flu and regular flu can have similar symptoms — mostly fever, cough and sore throat, though some of the U.S. victims who recovered also experienced vomiting and diarrhea. But unlike with regular flu, humans don’t have natural immunity to a virus that includes animal genes — and new vaccines can take months to bring into use.

The same virus also sickened at least 10 people in the United States, though there have been no deaths north of the border.

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