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World on alert as fears grow of a killer swine flu pandemic

FEARS of a global flu pandemic grew as new suspected cases appeared across the world yesterday, including up to 81 people who died in Mexico, where millions hid indoors to avoid contamination.

While all the deaths so far have been in Mexico, the flu is spreading in the United States, and possible infections have popped up as far afield as Europe and New Zealand.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg confirmed yesterday that eight school children in the city had caught the swine flu virus, although the cases were mild and it did not appear to be spreading rapidly to the general population. Another 11 cases have been confirmed in California, Kansas and Texas.

In New Zealand, 10 students from a school party that had been in Mexico were being tested after showing flu-like symptoms.

A pandemic would deal a major blow to a world economy already suffering its worst recession in decades, and experts say it could cost trillions of dollars.

The World Health Organization has declared the flu of a type never seen before, a "public health emergency of international concern" and says it could become a pandemic, or a global outbreak of serious disease.

A 1968 "Hong Kong" flu pandemic killed about 1 million people globally.

Mexico City, one of the world's biggest cities, practically ground to a halt yesterday with restaurants, cinemas and churches closing their doors and millions staying at home.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans to see a doctor if they had good reason to suspect swine flu.

"At this point, for the whole country we do think that people who have respiratory illness, who have recently traveled to Mexico for instance, ought to be consulting with their doctors," said Anne Schuchat from the CDC's public health program.

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

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the US government is following developments on the swine flu closely and there is no need for Americans to panic.

In Spain, doctors checked three people who had returned from visiting Mexico and reported flu-like symptoms.

The new flu strain, a mixture of various swine, bird and human viruses, poses the biggest risk of a large-scale pandemic since bird flu surfaced in 1997, killing several hundred people.

WHO Director General Margaret Chan urged greater worldwide surveillance for any unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness.

Although it is called "swine flu" there is no evidence that any of the cases stemmed from contact with pigs, said Liz Wagstrom, a veterinarian who works on public health issues for the US National Pork Board.

The outbreak has snowballed into a huge headache for Mexico, already grappling with a violent drug war and economic slowdown.

"We are monitoring minute by minute the evolution of this problem across the whole country," Mexican President Felipe Calderon said as health officials counted suspected infections from the tropical south to the arid northern border.

The swine flu killed at least 20 and possibly as many as 81 people in Mexico, and more than 1,300 people were being tested for suspected infection.

New flu strains can spread quickly because no one has natural immunity to them and a vaccine takes months to develop.

Authorities across Asia snapped into action. At airports and other border checkpoints in Malaysia, South Korea and Japan, officials screened travelers for any flu-like symptoms.


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