By Calvin Palmer
The head of the World Health Organization warned today that the outbreak of new multi-strain swine flu in Mexico has a “pandemic potential”.
The virus has killed up to 60 people in Mexico and spread into the United States. Eight non-fatal infections have occurred in California and Texas.
In New York, 75 students at a private school in Queens, who recently visited Mexico, reported flu-like symptoms but no cases of swine flu have been confirmed.
“A new virus is responsible” for the cases reported in Mexico and the United States, WHO director general Margaret Chan said at a press conference today.
“How the situation will evolve is unpredictable,” she said, urging other countries to “increase vigilance”.
“This virus has clearly a pandemic potential,” Chan added.
Officials from the WHO said the virus from 12 of the Mexican patients was the same genetically as a new strain of swine flu, designated H1N1, seen in eight people in California and Texas who later recovered.
In Mexico, schools and museums have shut and public events cancelled. Mexicans have started wearing surgical masks which soldiers handed out in the streets.
Two professional soccer games scheduled for tomorrow will be played without spectators, behind closed doors, to avoid massive gatherings of people.
Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova confirmed 20 deaths from swine flu late yesterday and said authorities were investigating another 48 who had died with similar symptoms.
Health officials have been investigating more than 1,000 possible swine flu infections.
Apart from the capital, four other deaths were in central San Luis Potosi, two in Baja California, in northwest Mexico, and one in Oaxaca, in the southeast.
But Cordova added that it was “an epidemic, not a pandemic”.
Genetic analysis shows the flu strain is a never-before-seen mixture of swine, human and avian viruses.
The fact most of the dead were aged between 25 and 45 was seen as a worrying sign linked to pandemics, as seasonal flu tends to be more deadly among the elderly and the very young.