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Global concerns over flu outbreak, over 100 dead

GOVERNMENTS around the world moved to contain the spread of a possible flu pandemic today, as a virus that has killed 103 people in Mexico spread to the United States and possibly as far as New Zealand.

The dollar weakened along with Mexico's peso, and Asian stock markets and the price of oil fell as worries about the outbreak grew.

As concerns mounted over the weekend, the World Health Organization (WHO) decided to activate its 24-hour "war room" command centre.

No deaths have occurred outside Mexico from the new strain of swine flu but 20 cases have been identified in the United States and six in Canada. Possible cases are being checked as far afield as Europe, Israel and New Zealand.

Countries stepped up surveillance at airports and ports, using thermal cameras and sensors to find people with fever.

Japan's cabinet held a special meeting and said it would prioritise production of a new vaccine. Health authorities across Asia tried to reassure populations, saying they had sufficient stockpiles of anti-flu drugs to handle an outbreak.

The new flu strain, a mixture of various swine, bird and human viruses, poses the biggest risk of a large-scale pandemic since avian flu surfaced in 1997, killing several hundred people. A 1968 "Hong Kong" flu pandemic killed about 1 million people globally.

The United States declared a public health emergency yesterday. Although most cases outside Mexico were relatively mild, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said she feared there might be US fatalities.

The WHO has declared the flu a "public health emergency of international concern" that could become a pandemic, or global outbreak of serious disease. That could cost trillions of dollars to a world economy already in its worst crisis in decades.

A top virologist who helped fight the last two global major health scares, SARS in 2003 and bird flu which re-emerged the same year, worried that Asia could again bear the brunt of a new pandemic.

"We are counting down to a pandemic," said Guan Yi, a virology professor at the University of Hong Kong who helped trace the deadly outbreak of SARS to the civet cat.

"I think the spread of this virus in humans cannot possibly be contained within a short time ... there are already cases in almost every region. The picture is changing every moment."

Investors in Asia are all the more aware of the potential damage after the outbreak of SARS in Hong Kong six years ago hobbled the city and regional economy, as well as flare-ups of bird flu in the past few years.

At the centre of the outbreak this time is Mexico, a major exporter of oil, coffee and factory goods. Late on Sunday, Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said the flu had killed 103 people in the country and about 400 people were admitted to hospital.

A glimmer of hope was that most patients had recovered.


Schools were closed in several Mexican states this week in order to slow the spread of the virus and the densely populated capital ground to a halt. Mexico City's bars, museums and stadiums shut and many office workers were set to work from home as a precaution.

Many in the capital spent the weekend hunkered at home or wore blue surgical face masks handed out by truckloads of soldiers to venture out onto strangely hushed streets. The city government mulled halting public transport.

"The idea of spending 10 days in the house with two small children, with no cafes, no museums, is totally unappealing so I'm going to San Diego," said an American expatriate, C.R. Hibbs, who was headed out of the city with her kids.

Mexico, whose government already is grappling with a murderous drug cartel war and a slumping economy, faced a dent to its economy with shoppers and diners expected to stay home this week.

Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebard said closures in the capital could last 10 days. Far away in the Pacific party-town of Acapulco, hundreds of nightclubs were shuttered.

One of the country's biggest annual fairs, the Feria San Marcos, was axed in the central city of Aguascalientes, in a bitter disappointment to fans of its raucous bullfights, free-flowing alcohol and blaring folk music.

The Roman Catholic faithful were stuck home too as church doors were shut and masses were broadcast on radio and television. Baptisms and confirmations were canceled and church authorities mulled rescheduling weddings.

Finance Minister Agustin Carstens said the flu's impact would be "transitory" but the peso, already weakened by the economic crisis, fell nearly 3 percent in electronic trading on Sunday night.

Flu is characterized by a sudden fever, muscle aches, sore throat and dry cough. Victims of the new strain have also suffered from vomiting and diarrhea.


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