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WHO warns about pandemic as virus claims 68 Mexicans

A NEW flu strain that has killed up to 68 people in Mexico could become a pandemic, the World Health Organization warned yesterday as health experts tried to track the disease's spread.

Hospitals tested patients with flu symptoms for the never-before-seen virus which had also infected eight people in the United States.

No further deaths had come to light since Friday afternoon but WHO warned the person-to-person infections meant there was a risk of a major outbreak.

"It has pandemic potential because it is infecting people," WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said in Geneva.

"However, we cannot say on the basis of currently available laboratory, epidemiological and clinical evidence whether or not it will indeed cause a pandemic."

The new flu strain - a mixture of swine, human and avian flu viruses - is still poorly understood and the situation is evolving quickly, Chan said.

Mexico City's health secretary, Armando Ahued, said the last deaths were reported on Friday, when Mexico gave the toll as 20 confirmed and 48 other possible deaths. In all, 1,004 suspected cases have been reported nationwide.

Mexico has shut schools, cinemas and museums and canceled public events in its sprawling, overcrowded capital of 20 million people to try to prevent further infections. Weekend soccer matches were played in empty stadiums and people on the streets wore face masks.

The strain of flu has spread fast between people and infected some individuals who had no contact with one another.

The WHO said the virus from 12 of the Mexican patients was genetically the same as a new strain of swine flu, designated H1N1, seen in eight people in California and Texas. All of the eight later recovered.

An emergency committee of WHO experts convening yesterday will advise Chan on issues including possibly changing the WHO's pandemic alert level, currently 3 on a scale of 1 to 6.

"We do not yet have a complete picture of the epidemiology or the risk, including possible spread beyond the currently affected areas," Chan said, adding the situation was seen as "serious."

Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova, speaking on Friday night's television news, encouraged people to avoid crowds and wear face masks, noting there was no guarantee that a vaccine would help against the new strain.

The seasonal flu vaccine protects against one strain of the H1N1 virus, which is also circulating, but this new version is genetically different. US experts are working on a vaccine against the new strain but it would take months to make.

Cordova said the death rate appeared to have steadied and hospitals in the past few days had not seen the exponential rise in the number of people infected that many had feared.

Most of the dead were aged between 25 and 45, a worrying sign linked to pandemics, as seasonal flu tends to be more deadly among the elderly and the very young.

"We realize the seriousness of this problem," Mexican President Felipe Calderon told health officials on Friday.

More cases could come to light as patients are tested in California, said Dr Gil Chavez, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the California Department of Public Health and the state's chief epidemiologist.

"The more we look the more we are likely to find," he said.

In New York City, health officials were investigating what had sickened scores of students who fell ill with flu-like symptoms in a Queens high school on Thursday and Friday but there was no speculation about whether flu was responsible.


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