x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Mexico begins five-day closure

Schools, restaurants and tourist sites close and streets are deserted across Mexico in a shut-down intended to prevent the spread of a new strain of flu.

Schools, restaurants and tourist sites were closed and streets deserted across Mexico yesterday as the country started a five-day shut-down intended to prevent the spread of a new strain of flu that has killed at least 16 people and infected hundreds of others in a dozen countries. Mexico, the epicentre of the global outbreak, said yesterday that 15 people were confirmed dead and 328 infected with the virus. The only other death has been in the United States.

Jose Angel Cordova, Mexico's health minister, said he was hopeful the worst might be over. "The increase in the number of dead does not mean that more people have died in the past few hours, but that we have carried out more examinations," Mr Cordova said. But even as transmission of the swine flu, renamed by the World Health Organisation as influenza A, seems to have levelled off in Mexico, countries such as Denmark and Hong Kong reported their first infections. Hong Kong is the first country in Asia to report a case of the H1N1 flu strain, which is a combination of bird, swine and human influenza.

Germany yesterday also reported its first case of human-to-human transmissions. All of the other people infected had travelled to Mexico. The outbreak has resulted in trade bans on pork products in Russia and the culling of pigs in countries such as Egypt, and experts have urged a change in the name of the virus in order to calm fears that it is transmitted through pork products or pigs. The flu is caused by human transmission of respiratory droplets.

On Thursday, WHO said it would stop using the name swine flu because it was misleading. The US government also wants to lose the swine label because many people are afraid to eat pork, hurting the US$97 billion (Dh356bn) US pork industry. However, Iraq still plans to kill three wild boar in Baghdad Zoo. Dr Ihsan Jafar, who heads Iraq's committee on H1N1, said yesterday that a request was sent to Baghdad municipality to cull the hogs as soon as possible.

"It is also possible the disease could be spread by eating pork, so we banned hunting wild boar," the regional health minister, Abdul Rahman Osman, said. Most Iraqis are Muslim and do not eat pork, but a Christian minority does. Iraq has registered no cases of the swine flu. In the United States, 300 schools were closed across the country on Thursday amid fears of the spread of the flu. About 169,000 pupils were on a day's holiday from schools in New York and Texas, which so far have the highest number of confirmed US cases. New York has 50 cases and Texas 26. WHO meanwhile said that it was examining its response to the outbreak in Mexico following accusations that it reacted too slowly, but defended its response. "There are cases of influenza all the time, but once we knew that this illness was cause by a new influenza virus ? we moved into operation within a matter of hours," Thomas Abrahams, a WHO spokesman, said.

According to WHO, the influenza epidemics occur yearly during autumn and winter in temperate regions. Illnesses result in hospitalisations and deaths mainly among high-risk groups: the very young, elderly or chronically ill. Worldwide, these annual epidemics result in about three to five million cases of severe illness, and about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths. sbhattacharya@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Dow Jones