Mexico’s health secretary said the swine flu epidemic in his country “is in its declining phase,” even as the disease extended its reach through Europe and Latin America with at least five countries reporting new cases on Sunday.
China quarantined more than 70 Mexican travelers and Hong Kong isolated 350 people in a hotel as a precaution even though no new swine flu infections appeared in Asia. In Egypt, authorities’ attempt to kill all pigs as a precaution against the disease prompted pig owners to clash with police who were helping to seize their animals for slaughter.
The death toll in Mexico remains at 19, and the number of confirmed cases has increased slightly, from 473 to 506, including the dead, Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said. He said “evolution of the epidemic is in its declining phase.”
Swine flu has also killed one toddler in the US and has spread to 18 countries worldwide _ but experts believe the actual spread is much wider.
The global caseload was nearing 800 and growing _ the vast majority in Mexico, the US and Canada. Colombia on Sunday reported South America’s first confirmed case of swine flu a day after Costa Rica reported the first in Central America.
The Spanish Health Ministry said the country now has 40 confirmed cases of swine flu _ making it the European nation hardest hit by the virus. It said most of the victims have already recovered. All but two had recently visited Mexico.
Britain, Italy and Germany also reported new cases.
But just over a week into the outbreak, the virus largely remains an unpredictable mystery.
Mexico’s health secretary said 11 people were suspected to have died from the virus in the previous 24 hours. The alarming news came after the epidemic’s toll in Mexico appeared to have been leveling off.
In China, Mexicans were being asked to identify themselves on arriving flights and isolated from other travelers after landing, said Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s ambassador to the country. None of those in isolation has presented symptoms and most had no contact with infected persons or places, he said.
Hong Kong _ which was criticized for delaying quarantine measures during the SARS outbreak _ sealed the downtown Metropark Hotel, where a sickened Mexican tourist had stayed, trapping 350 guests and employees inside.
About a half dozen police officers wearing masks guarded the hotel on Sunday, even though all those at the hotel were reported to be healthy. One guest said he walked on the stairs for exercise and to alleviate boredom.
“It’s highly inconvenient. That’s what’s affecting people, because it took us by surprise,” said 45-year-old Kevin Ireland, who was on a business trip from New Delhi, India.
Scientists warn that the virus could mutate into a deadlier form.
“Influenza is unpredictable,” said Dr Tim Uyeki, an epidemiologist at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who has worked on SARS and H5N1 bird flu outbreaks. “There are so many unanswered questions. This is a brand new virus. There’s so much we don’t know about the human infectious with this virus.”
Right now, one of the biggest hurdles is a lack of information from Mexico. A team of international and Mexican virus sleuths is trying to piece together an epidemiological picture of who’s dying and where transmission began, while also uncovering just how it’s attacking people with severe illness. But details are emerging slowly.
President Barack Obama urged caution.
“This is a new strain of the flu virus, and because we haven’t developed an immunity to it, it has more potential to cause us harm,” Obama said. Later, he spoke with Mexican President Felipe Calderon to share information.
Pablo Kuri, a Mexican epidemiologist, said three of the dead were children: a 9-year-old girl, a 12-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy. Four were older than 60. The other nine were between 21 and 39 _ unusual ages for people to die from flu because they tend to have stronger immune systems.
Although most of the dead were from the Mexico City area, they came from different neighborhoods in the metropolis of 20 million, and there were no similarities linking their medical backgrounds.
One theory for the deaths is that perhaps they sought treatment too late _ falling sick an average of seven days before seeing a doctor. Many of the sick around the world were people who had visited Mexico, including 13 of Britain’s 16 cases.
The World Health Organization earlier announced that a pandemic was imminent, but it has decided against declaring a full pandemic alert.
In the Canadian province of Alberta, health and agriculture officials said about 220 pigs on a farm were quarantined after being infected by a worker who had recently returned from Mexico. They stressed that swine viruses are common in pigs, and there was no need for consumers to stop eating pork as long as it’s handled properly and cooked thoroughly.
The pigs are all recovering in the first documented case of the H1N1 human flu being passed to another species.
In Egypt, police fired shots in the air and tear gas at pig owners who stoned them in an attempt to prevent government workers from slaughtering their animals as a precaution against swine flu. A security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said 12 people were injured in the Manshiyet Nasr slum.
In Baghdad, Iraqi officials killed three wild boars at Baghdad’s zoo because of swine flu fears, even though health experts say the virus is not transmitted by pigs. Iraq has no documented cases of swine flu.