New strain of swine flu kills 'up to 60'

Up to 60 people are feared dead in Mexico following an outbreak of a new strain of swine flu that has also infected eight people in the US. The World Health Organisation is worried that it could mark the start of a global epidemic.


REUTERS - Mexican and US officials have taken emergency steps to contain a new multi-strain swine flu that has killed up to 60 in Mexico, and infected eight in the United States.

Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova confirmed 20 deaths from swine flu late Friday and said authorities were probing another 40 who had died with flu symptoms.

"There were 60 deaths with similar symptoms," Cordova said, as authorities launched a huge campaign to prevent the spread of the virus, closing schools and urging people to avoid contact in public.

They were investigating 943 possible swine flu infections.

The World Health Organization went on high alert, dispatching top experts to the United States and Mexico amid concern that the new virus could become a global epidemic.

"It's a virus that mutated from pigs and transmitted to some humans," Cordova said earlier.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said tests show some of the Mexican victims died from the same new strain of swine flu that affected eight people in Texas and California, who later recovered.

"It's very obvious that we are very concerned. We've set up emergency operation centers," CDC spokesman Dave Daigle told AFP.

The WHO said Canadian laboratory testing had confirmed 18 cases of swine fever among almost 1,000 Mexicans found to have an influenza-like illness in three regions -- of whom 62 died.

"Because there are human cases associated with an animal influenza virus, and because of the geographical spread of multiple community outbreaks, plus the somewhat unusual age groups affected, these events are of high concern," the Swiss-based body said in a statement.

"The majority of (the Mexican) cases have occurred in otherwise healthy young adults. Influenza normally affects the very young and the very old, but these age groups have not been heavily affected in Mexico," the WHO said.

The UN health agency said samples from 12 were "genetically identical" to cases detected in the US state of California.

US medical authorities also expressed strong concern as eight known cases were reported, with President Barack Obama being fully briefed on an outbreak, according to a White House spokesman. The US also probed nine suspect cases.

The WHO was to send a team of experts to Mexico to work with health authorities and WHO head Margaret Chan was due to speak on the issue Saturday.

Mexican officials warned people to avoid crowds, using the subway, or kissing each other in greeting, and closed many of the capital's museums and theaters.

Mexico City authorities initially announced a mass vaccination campaign using regular human flu vaccines, but later admitted that the WHO had advised them that it was better to use antiviral medicines.

Cordova said that the government had more than one million doses of suitable antivirals.

The CDC website states that there is no vaccine to specifically protect humans from swine flu, only to protect pigs.

Neither the WHO nor the CDC has declared the outbreak a pandemic -- that occurs when there is a new virus to which few people have resistance, the virus is easily transmissible and sustainable within a population, and causes severe illness.

In Mexico, President Felipe Calderon canceled a trip and met with his cabinet to coordinate the country's response.

Medical teams were on stand-by at the capital's international airport, and all passengers had to fill out a health questionnaire.

Human outbreaks of H1N1 swine influenza virus were recorded in the United States in 1976 and 1988, when two deaths were recorded, and in 1986. In 1988 a pregnant woman died after contact with sick pigs, according to the WHO.

In recent years, the global focus for a pandemic has shifted to the H5N1 bird flu virus, which has spread from poultry to humans and killed 257 of the 421 people infected by the virus since 2003.

If a pig is simultaneously infected with a human and an avian influenza virus, it can serve as a "mixing vessel" for the two viruses that could combine to create a new, more virulent strain.

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