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Flu spreads as experts prepare for the worst

THE A-H1N1 flu extended its reach through Europe and Latin America, with at least five countries reporting new cases yesterday. Health experts were investigating a case of the virus jumping from a person to pigs, trying to determine if the disease was reaching a new stage.

So far the flu epidemic has killed 19 people in Mexico and one toddler in the United States and has spread to 18 countries worldwide - but experts believe the actual spread is much wider.

Mexico's health secretary said yesterday 11 people were suspected to have died from the virus in the previous 24 hours. The news came after the epidemic's toll in Mexico appeared to have been leveling off.

The global caseload was more than 800 and growing - the vast majority in Mexico, the United States and Canada.

Colombia reported South America's first confirmed case of the new flu virus yesterday, a day after Costa Rica reported its first case.

Hardest hit

The Spanish Health Ministry said the country now has 40 confirmed cases - making it the European nation hardest hit by the virus. It said most of the victims had already recovered. All but two had recently visited Mexico.

Britain, Italy and Germany also reported new cases.

But just over a week into the outbreak, the virus remains largely an unpredictable mystery.

"Influenza is unpredictable," said Dr Tim Uyeki, an epidemiologist at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who worked on SARS and H5N1 bird flu outbreaks. "There are so many unanswered questions. This is a brand new virus."

A team of international and Mexican virus sleuths is trying to piece together a picture of who's dying and where transmission began, while also uncovering just how it's attacking people with severe illness. But details are emerging slowly.

Late Saturday, Mexico's confirmed cases jumped to 506, including the 19 deaths. A Mexican toddler also died in Texas days ago, for a worldwide total of 20.

Child victims

Pablo Kuri, a Mexican epidemiologist, said three of the dead were children: a 9-year-old girl, a 12-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy. Four were older than 60. The other nine were between 21 and 39 - unusual ages for people to die from flu because they tend to have stronger immune systems.

Although most of the dead were from the Mexico City area, they came from different neighborhoods, and there were no similarities linking their medical backgrounds.

In the Canadian province of Alberta, about 220 pigs on a farm were quarantined after being infected by a worker recently back from Mexico.

The pigs are all recovering in the first documented case of A-H1N1 human flu being passed to another species.

In Egypt, police fired shots in the air and tear gas at pig owners who stoned them in an attempt to prevent government workers from slaughtering their animals as a precaution.

Iraqi officials killed three wild boars at Baghdad's zoo because of swine flu fears, even though experts say the virus is not transmitted by pigs.


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