Mexican Schools Shut as Epidemic Hits 'Critical' Point

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.

He said he has no indication that the pig farms in Perote are responsible for the epidemic.

Scientists are still struggling to determine how the virus was first passed from pigs to people. Pigs have receptors in their respiratory tracts that make them susceptible to strains of bird and human flu, which can then mutate to create a new virus, as they apparently have in this case, said Joan E. Nichols, an infectious-disease expert and associate director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

"We consider them the mixing pot. . . . They're a great source to generate something new," she said. "People who work with the pigs can also catch it."

The nationwide shutdown of schools, scheduled to start Tuesday and run until May 6, is part of Mexico's broader effort to limit large gatherings of people to try to stop the contagion.

"We will take advantage of this time so we can all learn what we need to know to protect our health," said Alonso Lujambio, the education secretary.

The mayor of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard, said he is considering a complete shutdown of this city of 20 million people, including halting all public transportation. One of the world's busiest subway systems seemed much emptier than normal on Monday, with many people wearing masks to protect themselves. Mexico City malls, movie theaters, museums and restaurants were all closed. Two federal government employees, who both spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that only about a quarter of the employees in their offices showed up to work Monday and that those who did were careful not to touch their colleagues.

"I feel like we are living a science fiction movie," said Cristian González, a film director who was wearing a surgical mask as he stocked up on groceries at a supermarket. "I am 51 years old, and this is the first time in my life Mexico has experienced a crisis like this. . . . This is totally new."

To add to the surreal nature of the day, a 5.6-magnitude earthquake, centered south of the capital, shook Mexico City and briefly interrupted the news conference on swine flu. There were no immediate reports of damage.

The flu has left Mexico bracing for a major shock to its economy, with officials in Mexico City estimating losses of hundreds of millions of dollars in the city alone. The International Monetary Fund predicted last week, before the outbreak was publicized, that the country's economy would contract 3.7 percent in 2009, a figure some banks and brokerages said at the time was optimistic.

"We are going through a significant recession, and this is going to reduce economic activity even further," said Mario Correa, an economist with Scotiabank in Mexico City.

Staff writer Lyndsey Layton in Washington and special correspondent Jonathan Roeder in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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