Second swine flu death in Texas; Mexico set to reopen
Mexico emerged from its swine flu isolation as thousands of newspaper vendors, salesmen hawking trinkets and even panhandlers dropped their protective masks. The Texas woman, the second confirmed person to die with swine flu in the U.S., lived not far from the Mexico border and had chronic medical conditions.world Updated: May 06, 2009 09:17 IST
Mexico emerged from its swine flu isolation Tuesday as thousands of newspaper vendors, salesmen hawking trinkets and even panhandlers dropped their protective masks and joined the familiar din of traffic horns and blaring music on the streets of the capital.
There were still signs, however, of the virus that set off world health alarms.
A Texas woman who lived near a popular border crossing was confirmed as the second outside Mexico and the first U.S. resident to die after contracting the virus. Mexico’s Health Department later announced three more confirmed deaths, raising the country’s total to 29.
Across Mexico, people were eagerly anticipating this week’s reopening of businesses, restaurants, schools and parks, after a claustrophobic five-day furlough.
“We have a lot of confidence nothing is going to happen,” said Irineo Moreno Gonzales, 54, a security guard who Tuesday limited takeout customers to four at a time at a usually crowded downtown Starbucks. “Mexicans have the same spirit we’ve always had. We’re ready to move forward.”
The Texas woman, the second confirmed person to die with swine flu in the U.S., lived not far from the Mexico border and had chronic medical conditions, as did the Mexico City toddler who died of swine flu last week during a visit to Houston, Texas, health officials said.
The 33-year-old woman was pregnant and delivered a healthy baby while hospitalized, said Leonel Lopez, Cameron County epidemiologist. She was a teacher in the Mercedes Independent School District, which announced it would close its schools until May 11.
Mexico’s government imposed the shutdown to curb the flu’s spread, especially in this metropolis of 20 million where the outbreak sickened the most people. Capital residents overwhelmingly complied, and officials cautiously hailed the drastic experiment as a success.
But by Tuesday, pedestrians, many wearing protective masks, many not, were back to dodging the familiar green-and-white VW taxis cruising for fares and noisy heavy trucks bearing bottled water.
Some officials worried about a sudden rush toward normalcy.
“The scientists are saying that we really need to evaluate more,” said Dr. Ethel Palacios, the deputy director of the swine flu monitoring effort here. “In terms of how the virus is going to behave, we are keeping every possibility in mind. We can’t make a prediction of what’s going to happen.”
Palacios acknowledged the enormous responsibilities that come with balancing the public’s health and economic welfare.
“One of most the important things is that you need to know that these measures do have an impact not only on health but also on other aspect of life and society,” Palacios said.
With 942 people sickened in Mexico at last count, public celebrations of Cinco de Mayo were banned, and politicians’ homage to the soldiers who fought off the French 147 years ago were subdued.
For the first time in decades, Mexico canceled the popular re-enactment of its May 5, 1862, victory over invading French troops in the central state of Puebla. Another traditionally boisterous Cinco de Mayo party in Mexico City’s central plaza, the Zocalo, will wait for another year, as will military ceremonies across the nation.
Cinco de Mayo celebrations generally attract bigger crowds in the U.S., where many Mexican-Americans gather to embrace their heritage. These crowds prompted concerns Tuesday about spreading the virus.
Denver’s annual festival, which typically draws 400,000, will be held as planned this weekend, with hand sanitation stations installed at the urging of city health officials. Los Angeles won’t skip its weekend celebration on historic Olvera Street. But in Chicago, the Mexican Civic Society of Illinois canceled its annual festivities because of flu concerns.
Swine flu has now sickened more than 1,700 people in 21 countries, including more than 600 in the United States.
The World Health Organization said it was shipping 2.4 million treatments of antiflu drugs to 72 countries “most in need,” and France sent 100,000 doses of antiflu drugs worth $1.7 million to Mexico.
Mexican Finance Secretary Agustin Carstens unveiled plans Tuesday to stimulate key industries and fight foreign bans on Mexican pork products. He said persuading tourists to come back will be a top priority.
Carstens said the outbreak cost Mexico’s economy at least $2.2 billion, and he announced a $1.3 billion stimulus package, mostly for tourism and small businesses, the sectors hardest hit by the epidemic. Mexico will temporarily reduce taxes for airlines and cruise ships and cut health insurance payments for small businesses.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he will ask governments to reverse trade and travel restrictions lacking a clear scientific basis.
About 20 Chinese businessmen and students, each wearing surgical masks, left Tijuana zon Tuesday on a Chinese government flight after being stranded when China canceled all direct flights to Mexico.
Mexico, meanwhile, was collecting more than 70 Mexican nationals quarantined in China with its own charter flight.
Four U.S. citizens were also quarantined in China, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said Tuesday, and about 200 passengers who flew from the United Kingdom were under quarantine in a Brunei hospital after three of them arrived with fevers.
Mexico City recovered a bit of its ebullient self Tuesday, one day before the official reopening of stores, restaurants and factories. Only essential services like gas stations and supermarkets have been allowed to operate since April 27, and the weekend’s professional soccer games will again be staged in empty stadiums.
High schools and universities were being scrubbed down to reopen on Thursday. Younger children return to school on Monday.
Many people shunned their surgical masks Tuesday; a boy selling music CDs on a subway train planted a wet kiss on the unprotected cheek of a girl hawking tiny flashlights. A fruit salad vendor dished up slabs of freshly cut mango and coconut without mask and gloves.
The government is requiring businesses to keep a distance of 2 meters (yards) between customers to prevent the disease from spreading. The rule seemed unlikely to survive in the overcrowded capital.
“It’s a little senseless, that people ride into town all jammed together on the subway, and the minute they enter a restaurant, they have to be 2 meters apart,” said Nahum Navarette, manager of Yug, a vegetarian restaurant that was still serving only takeout on Tuesday, its dining room deserted.