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Swine Flu Shuts Down Mexico City


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

The swine flu outbreak continues to grow both here and abroad, though it's still unclear how serious it will be. In New York City, eight high school students have been infected. Kansas is reporting two people with swine flu, with seven cases in California, two in Texas and one in Ohio. That brings the U.S. count to 20. All the case in this country are mild.

At a White House press conference that is now underway, Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said these numbers are likely to increase.

Dr. RICHARD BESSER (Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): As we look for cases of swine, we are seeing more cases of swine flu. We expect to see more cases of swine flu. We're responding and we're responding aggressively to try and learn more about this outbreak and to implement measures to control this outbreak.

NEARY: In Mexico the outbreak is more serious. The government says the number of suspected deaths is 81. Only 20 of these have been confirmed as swine flu, however. Mexico is also investigating about a 1,000 cases of severe pneumonia. Yesterday officials extended a ban in the capital on mass gatherings and ordered all schools to remain closed for at least another 10 days. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Mexico City.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Mexico City has swine flu fever. Concern about the virus dominates the capital. At the airport, the sales girls in duty free are wearing tight skirts and blue surgical masks. Immigration agents, cleaners and police all have their mouths covered.

(Soundbite of airport announcement)

Unidentified Woman: Dear passengers, we are (unintelligible) flu virus, which constitutes a possible outbreak.

BEAUBIEN: Posters urged people to wash their hands regularly with soap and water. Out in public, maybe half the people have masks either on or pulled down around their necks.

(Soundbite of market)

BEAUBIEN: At the Merced Market near the center of Mexico City, tomatoes, chilies and tomatillos are piled on long wooden tables. The air inside the building is laden with the smell of fresh cut onions and cilantro, but many people here view that air with suspicion. This woman, Berta Hernandez Corona(ph) had the ubiquitous blue mask over her mouth.

Ms. BERTA HERNANDEZ CORONA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, I'm worried about it, she says. Because I'm not from here, I'm from Pueblo and I don't want to bring the flu back there. Vendors say that on a Saturday afternoon, this market would usually be packed.

Mr. JESUS SORNEJO MARTINEZ(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Jesus Sornejo Martinez says the market, compared to other times, it's empty right now. Usually at this hour it's full. He's 39 years old and he says he has never seen a time like this when all the schools are closed and people are afraid to come out in public. He sells cucumbers and squash. He says the swine flu outbreak is already affecting his business.

Mr. MARTINEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: These products are perishable, he says. If you don't sell them in a couple of days, they're lost. Sornejo Martinez says the worst thing for him is that no one seems to really know what's happening with the disease and whether things might get much worse before they get better. And this is also worrying public health officials around the world. The new strain of swine flu that's killing people in Mexico right now has the characteristics necessary to explode into a global pandemic. It appears to spread through human contact and it appears capable of spreading quickly.

The World Health Organization yesterday called it a public health emergency of international concern. So far cases have only been confirmed in U.S. and Mexico, with the vast majority south of the border. And Mexican officials are scrambling to try to get control of it. President Felipe Calderon is calling on Mexicans to at least temporarily abandon their custom of shaking hands and kissing women on the cheek as a form of greeting.

President FELIPE CALDERON (Mexico): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: As you can see, the president said, officials here are not greeting one another. He also told people not to go out to cinemas or shows or other enclosed public gatherings. On this, the president and his health secretary are issuing slightly different messages. The health secretary has ordered that even open air gatherings such as soccer games be banned in the capital.

And the efforts by the government are not all just about encouraging people to wash hands and look after their health. President Calderon issued an order yesterday giving the federal government the power to confine people who are potentially contagious against their will and even search their homes.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Weekend Edition Sunday
Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.