Swine Flu Found in Mexican Outbreak

Federal health experts expect to find more cases of a unique new form of swine flu as they check people who had contact with seven California and Texas residents diagnosed with the illness. Video by AP
By Rob Stein and David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 25, 2009

An unusual strain of swine flu has been detected among victims of a large outbreak of a severe respiratory illness in Mexico, prompting global health officials, fearful of a potential flu pandemic, to scramble yesterday to try to contain the virus.

At least 1,004 people have been sickened and at least 68 have died, primarily in the sprawling capital of Mexico City, triggering officials to close all schools and universities, museums and libraries and to begin screening air travelers for symptoms before they leave the country.

Officials warned millions of residents to stay home, avoid public places and take other protective measures, such as resisting greeting people with handshakes or kisses. Drugstores reported being inundated with customers seeking face masks, and some subway riders were spotted wearing rubber gloves.

"We are very worried," Angelica Padilla, 38, a mother of a 5-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy, said in a telephone interview from Mexico City. "This is bad."

The outbreak heightened alarm among health officials in the United States, where at least eight cases of swine flu have been detected along the U.S.-Mexican border, and elsewhere.

"It's alarming and very concerning," said Sari Setiogi, a spokeswoman for the World Health Organization in Geneva, which began an investigation of the cause and scope of the outbreak.

President Obama has been briefed about the illness, spokesman Reid Cherlin said, adding: "The White House is taking the situation seriously and monitoring for any new developments."

The illness appeared to be primarily striking young, healthy adults, a highly unusual pattern that conjured images of the devastating 1918 flu pandemic.

Officials stressed that there were no signs that anything of that scale had begun, but Setiogi said, "This is another reason we are highly concerned," noting that it is the very old and the very young who are usually most vulnerable to common seasonal flu.

The Spanish flu, which circled the world in 1918 and 1919 and killed at least 50 million people, was of the same general subtype, H1N1, as the virus in California and Mexico.

In 1976, a strain of swine flu caused illness in 13 soldiers at Fort Dix in New Jersey, killing one. Fearing a pandemic, the federal government began a mass immunization campaign, but it was halted when the virus did not spread and some vaccine recipients developed a rare neurological disorder.

The WHO dispatched a team yesterday from its Washington office to Mexico City to assist authorities, ratcheted up efforts to detect the virus elsewhere and was mobilizing to take other steps if necessary.

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