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Mexico locked down to contain swine flu

CHURCHES stood empty yesterday in Mexico City after services were canceled, and health workers screened airports and bus stations for people sickened by a new strain of swine flu that experts fear could become a global epidemic.

President Felipe Calderon has assumed new powers to isolate people infected with the swine flu strain that Mexico's health minister says has killed up to 81 people and likely sickened 1,324 since April 13.

Mexican soldiers and health workers patrolled the capital's subway system handing out surgical masks and looking for possible flu cases.

People were advised to seek medical attention if they suffered from multiple symptoms, which include a fever of more than 37.8 degrees Celsius, body aches, coughing, a sore throat, respiratory congestion and, in some cases, vomiting and diarrhea.

Hundreds of public events from concerts to sports matches were called off to keep people from congregating and spreading the virus in crowds.

About a dozen federal police in blue surgical masks stood in front of Mexico City's Metropolitan Cathedral, where services were canceled.

Markets and restaurants were nearly empty, and throngs of Mexicans - some with just a fever - rushed to hospitals.

Mexico appears to have lost valuable days or weeks in detecting the new flu strain, a combination of pig, bird and human viruses that humans may have no natural immunity to.

Health officials have found cases in 16 Mexican states.

Two dozen new suspected cases were reported in the capital on Saturday alone.

The first death was in southern Oaxaca state on April 13 but Mexico didn't send mucous samples to the Center for Disease Control until April 18, around the same time it dispatched health teams to hospitals looking for patients with severe flu or pneumonia-like symptoms.

Those teams noticed something strange: The flu was killing people aged 20 to aged 40.

Flu victims are usually either infants or the elderly.

The Spanish flu pandemic, which killed at least 40 million people worldwide in 1918-19, also first struck otherwise healthy young adults.

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 - an epidemic that spreads in humans around the world.

WHO guidance calls for isolating the sick and blanketing everyone around them with anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu.

Too many patients have been identified in Mexico's teeming capital for such a solution now.

Asked why there were so many deaths in Mexico and none so far among the US cases, Health Secretary Jose Cordova noted that the US cases involved children - who haven't been among the fatal cases in Mexico, either.

"There are immune factors that are giving children some sort of defense, that is the only explanation we have," he said.

Another factor may be that some Mexican patients delayed seeking medical help, Cordova said.


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