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Swine flu probably originated in US, says Mexico

world Updated: Mar 30, 2010 11:38 IST

IANS
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A year after the outbreak of the deadly swine flu epidemic that killed over 14,000 people across the world, Mexico has said it suspects the disease originated in the US.

Public health officials in Mexico suspect the disease came from the US when Mexican tourists and emigrants were returning to their country, Jose Angel Cordova, the country's health secretary said Monday.

However, the top health official said that "it is very difficult" to know where the April 2009 outbreak of the AH1N1 virus actually started.

"Isolated cases occurred there," but no one paid them much attention, he said, recalling that among the first cases were two children hospitalised in California for being infected with the unknown virus, which the US Centre for Disease Control later described as an "atypical flu virus."

At the same time in Mexico, there were other cases of a flu described as atypical, because it occurred after the December-February flu season was over.

On April 23, 2009, a Canadian laboratory told Mexico that this was an unknown virus of animal origin with pandemic potential, and that it was the same as had been identified in the children in California.

Within hours of the notification, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his cabinet warned citizens of the presence of this new virus and about the necessary precautions to be taken.

Schools were closed nationwide for many days and Mexico City, home to over 20 million people was virtually shut down for five days.

Though the stringent measures were termed "exaggerated," Cordova said that the right decisions were taken, given that health professionals initially feared the AH1N1 outbreak could have been the beginning of a global flu pandemic with a high mortality rate.

"That night and many more I couldn't sleep. There were at least 15 very difficult days when we didn't know how (the virus) would develop because the number of cases was increasing. We had to send health convoys all over the place to meet the demand for doctor visits, do testing and get some idea of what we were dealing with," he said.

"There are many articles showing that there were limited outbreaks in the US of a virus, a flu, that originated with swine, starting in 1997 and then in 2003," but it was not communicable, he said.

"Many people were dying (of swine flu) in the US but no one knew. People in the US Health Department have told me there have been 11,000 (swine flu) deaths and the US doesn't have 10 times more people than Mexico. The 11,000 deaths didn't happen from one day to the next, people were dying and maybe (the authorities) didn't know what they were dying of or they didn't say," he said.

Mexico announced the number of victims "clearly and opportunely," he said adding that the country knew how to deal with it and taught the world how to stop this pandemic.

The health official said there were certain positives about the outbreak.

The virus served to "tune up" the country's health-care system with the installation of new laboratories and reserves of medicines to meet the possible arrival of other, more virulent viruses.

There have been 1,032 deaths and 72,233 confirmed cases of AH1N1 virus in Mexico till date.

By May 2010, 30 million Mexicans will have been vaccinated, he said.

With half of the 107 million Mexicans having had contact with AH1N1 and generated antibodies, Cordova said "it will be very difficult for the virus to continue being transmitted."