Mexican Schools Shut as Epidemic Hits 'Critical' Point

Governments around the world are launching medical and clean up operations to protect citizens against swine flu infections.
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

MEXICO CITY, April 27 -- Mexican officials outlined a steadily deteriorating situation Monday with the suspected death toll from swine flu rising to 149 people, prompting a decision to shut down all schools nationwide for more than a week and vastly limit public gatherings in the country that has been at the center of the international crisis.

"We are in the most critical moment of this epidemic, and the number of cases, unfortunately, will continue increasing," Health Secretary José Ángel Córdova said at a news conference. "We will reinforce preventative measures and pay the necessary attention to contain it."

The widening scope of the new virus has strained Mexico's ability to cope despite teams of international experts who have flown here to assist in the effort. The government has canceled public events and waged a massive public health campaign to get people to wash their hands regularly and wear surgical masks. But the virus continues to spread: Since officials became aware of the swine flu, 1,995 people have been hospitalized with serious cases of pneumonia, Córdova said, and 1,070 of those patients have been released.

The number of confirmed deaths from the virus remained at 20, but Córdova said just two laboratories in the country are capable of testing for the new strain and the process is moving "not as quickly as we'd like."

Health officials have now confirmed that the first death from swine flu occurred on April 13, when a 39-year-old woman died in the state of Oaxaca, south of Mexico City. Newspapers in Mexico have identified her as Adela María Gutiérrez Cruz, a government employee. But Córdova said an earlier case emerged when a 4-year-old boy tested positive for swine flu in an area dotted with pig-breeding farms near Perote in Veracruz state.

The boy's case was part of a wider outbreak of a normal strain of influenza in early April, Córdova said. But after officials knew of the swine flu strain, the boy, who survived, tested positive for the new strain. It is unclear whether his case spawned the epidemic.

The outbreak occurred near a farm run by Granjas Carroll de Mexico, which is partly owned by Virginia-based Smithfield Foods. The company, the largest producer of hogs in the United States, issued a statement saying it "has found no clinical signs or symptoms of the presence of swine influenza in the company's swine herd or its employees at its joint ventures in Mexico."

"Smithfield has no reason to believe that the virus is in any way connected to its operations in Mexico," the company said.

Residents in Perote have long been unhappy with the pig-breeding farms and have regularly claimed they have become sick from the pollution emanating from the farms.

The mayor of Perote, Guillermo Franco Vázquez, said in a phone interview that around March 20, about 800 people became ill. Twenty-five people with more serious cases were later tested, and only one, the young boy, tested positive for swine flu.

Vázquez said that starting Tuesday, municipal authorities plan a house-to-house monitoring program that will include testing anyone with even the slightest flu symptoms.

"The mayor's office is monitoring things constantly," he said, adding that results will be sent to federal authorities tracking the outbreak.

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