How Mexico is tackling the swine flu

Schools and nightclubs are closed. Health officials have new powers to quarantine homes.

By , Staff writer

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    A boy wearing a mask passes by a Mexican naval officer standing guard Sunday in Mexico City. Mexico's President Calderón says 6 million masks have been handed out.
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At the epicenter of a swine flu health crisis that has the world on alert, Mexico is working hard to maintain public calm.

Streets in Mexico City that are normally choked with traffic were free-flowing over the weekend. Bars and churches were shut, and parks were empty. This city of 20 million residents – and their elected officials – is taking seriously precautions against contracting the new strain of the virus.

First detected April 13 in Mexico, swine flu may be responsible for as many as 81 deaths here, as well some 20 milder cases – but no deaths – in California, New York, Texas, Ohio, and Kansas. There are also suspected cases in Canada, Europe, and New Zealand.

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Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who has employed the Army in a war with ruthless drug traffickers, has now given special powers to health officials. He's granted health authorities the right to enter homes and forcibly quarantine those diagnosed with the illness.

Schools have been shuttered and public events canceled. Mexicans have been urged to limit human contact, including the customary greeting kiss on the cheek.

Some Mexicans say the government isn't telling people the full scope of the outbreak. But others interviewed, who after decades of one-party rule are cynical about government transparency, say that the government has been open and doing all that it can to stem the problem.

"I think the government is doing a much better job today; I think the entire city must know about the threats and what to do if you get infected," says Rodolfo Millan, a cab driver in Mexico City, as he accepts a pile of blue surgical masks being handed out by Mexican soldiers. He says he's taking them home for his family.

Calderón urges calm

President Calderón has tried to assuage public panic, calling the virus "curable" and promising that the nation has enough medical supplies to address it. "Although this is a grave, serious problem, we're going to beat it," Calderón said.

The US has declared a public health emergency because of the cases that have migrated across the border.

The World Health Organization (WHO) called the outbreak "a public health event of international concern" but did not raise the threat level to a pandemic. They urged nations around the world to increase their monitoring and reporting of flu-like symptoms. "It has pandemic potential because it is infecting people," Margaret Chan, the director general of WHO, said from Geneva over the weekend.

Had it been categorized as a pandemic, it would have been the first since 1968, when the "Hong Kong flu" killed one million people worldwide.

Their resolve to conquer it was made clear today. "I believe that the world is much, much better prepared than we have ever been for dealing with this kind of situation," said Keiji Fukuda, acting director general for health security and environment at the WHO.

WHO officials emphasized that Mexico, which has 1 million doses of antiviral medication, is effectively addressing the outbreak.

The US has not issued a travel ban to Mexico, but a Hong Kong official warned against travel there "unless absolutely necessary."

Blue masks everywhere

At the Mexico City international airport on Sunday, airport employees and federal officials wore blue surgical masks. Military officers also handed out masks to departing taxis and cars, and watched for those with flu symptoms entering the country.

Calderón said Sunday authorities have handed out 6 million masks. Tourists and those visiting Mexico on business said Sunday that they were not overly concerned about risks, a sentiment echoed by many Mexicans as well.

"I think the media exaggerates everything," says Jessica Cuevas, a software engineer who planned to attend her workplace on Monday. "It could be a big problem if we don't address it, but I think the government is doing what it can."

Still, she says she worries that the government acted too late, after the first confirmed case. The virus was first detected earlier this month in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexican Health Secretary José Cordova said at a news conference Saturday.

To assuage such doubts, Calderón promised he would continuously keep the public abreast of new developments "with openness and truthful information." The Mexican government website is being updated regularly, and radio and TV broadcasters are informing citizens what to do should they exhibit symptoms.

New powers granted to Mexico's federal health department include the right to enter any building and to inspect incoming travelers and their baggage. Schools will be closed until May 6 in the capital, as well as neighboring Mexico and San Luis Potosí states. Officials have urged employers to be sensitive about work schedules this week, particularly for parents with small kids at home in the face of school closures.

Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard called on bars and dance clubs to close their doors. So far this weekend, about 500 public events, including Roman Catholic masses, have been canceled.

The US Embassy in Mexico City cancelled 5,100 visa appointments set for the beginning of this week, but said in a statement that it would be open to assist Americans with emergency services.

• Wires services contributed to this report.

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