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WHO says swine flu on brink of pandemic

MEXICO is telling citizens to stay home, urging businesses to close for five days and suspending government services as the World Health Organization warns the swine flu outbreak is close to becoming a global epidemic.

In the United States, where swine flu has been confirmed in 11 states, President Barack Obama told Americans the government was "taking the utmost precautions and preparations" to stop the virus.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon said in a televised address that only essential businesses such as supermarkets, hospitals and pharmacies should stay open, and only critical government workers such as police and soldiers would be on duty from today through Tuesday. School had already been canceled nationwide through Tuesday.

The steps are aimed at stopping further spread of the virus, blamed for 168 deaths in Mexico and one in the United States, even though the WHO has suggested nations should focus on minimizing its effects, not containing its spread.

"There will be no government activities - those that are not fundamental for citizens - nor any private-sector activities that are not fundamental to common life," Calderon said on Wednesday night in a televised address.

"There is no safer place to protect yourself against catching swine flu than in your house," he said, defending the government against criticism that it had been slow to act against signs of a new and dangerous virus.

In the US, both Vice President Joe Biden and the acting head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in televised interviews yesterday there would be no practical benefit to closing the US-Mexican border.

The WHO on Wednesday raised its alert level to Phase 5, the second-highest, indicating a pandemic may be imminent, and was talking about moving to Phase 6. The Phase 5 alert - the first ever - activates added efforts to produce a vaccine.

"It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic," WHO Director General Margaret Chan said in Geneva. "We do not have all the answers right now, but we will get them."

Switzerland and the Netherlands became the latest countries to report swine flu infections. In addition to Mexico and the US, Canada, New Zealand, Britain, Germany, Spain, Israel and Austria have confirmed cases.

European Union health ministers planned emergency talks in Luxembourg to coordinate national efforts in preventing the spread of swine flu in Europe.

Ecuador, Cuba and Argentina have all banned travel to or from Mexico, and Peru has banned inbound flights. The US, the European Union and other countries have discouraged nonessential travel to Mexico. Some countries have urged their citizens to avoid the US and Canada as well.


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