MEXICO CITY – Mexico shut down schools, museums, libraries and
state-run theatres across it overcrowded capital Friday in hopes of
containing a swine flu outbreak that authorities say killed at least 20
people – and perhaps dozens more.
Mexico put the confirmed toll at 20 dead, but 40
other fatalities were being probed, and at least 943 nationwide were
sick from the suspected flu, the health department said.
President Felipe Calderon cancelled a trip and met
with his cabinet to co-ordinate Mexico’s response. The government has
500,000 doses of flu vaccine and planned to administer them to health
workers, who are at high risk of infection because of contact with the
Experts are unclear on whether vaccine made to
protect against human flu strains would offer any protection against
this new swine flu.
There are no vaccines available for the general
public in Mexico, and authorities urged people to avoid hospitals
unless they had a medical emergency, since hospitals are centres of
They also said Mexicans should refrain from
customary greetings such as shaking hands or kissing cheeks, and
authorities at Mexico City’s international airport were questioning
passengers to try to prevent anybody with possible influenza from
boarding airplanes and spreading the disease.
“We certainly have 60 deaths that we can’t be sure
are from the same virus, but it is probable,” said Health Secretary
Jose Cordova. He called it a “new, different strain … that originally
came from pigs.”
Epidemiologists are particularly concerned because
the only people killed so far were normally less-vulnerable young
people and adults.
Closing the schools across the metropolis of 20
million kept 6.1 million students home from day-care centres through
high schools, and thousands more were affected as colleges and
universities closed down. Parents scrambled to juggle work and family
concerns due to what local media said was the first citywide schools
closure since Mexico City’s devastating 1985 earthquake.
Authorities also advised capital residents not to go
to work if they felt ill, and to wear surgical masks if they had to
move through crowds. A wider shutdown – perhaps including shutting down
government offices – was being considered.
“It is very likely that classes will be suspended
for several days,” Cordova said. “We will have to evaluate, and let’s
hope this doesn’t happen, the need to restrict activity at workplaces.”
Mexico’s initial response in its overcrowded capital
brought to mind other major outbreaks – such as when severe acute
respiratory syndrome, better known as SARS, hit Asia.
At its peak in 2003, Beijing was the hardest-hit
city in the world. Schools, cinemas and restaurants were shuttered to
prevent the spread the deadly respiratory virus, and thousands of
people were quarantined at home.
In March 2008, Hong Kong ordered more than a half
million young students to stay home for two weeks because of a flu
outbreak. It was the first such closure in Hong Kong since the SARS
Lillian Molina and other teachers at the
Montessori’s World preschool scrubbed down their empty classrooms with
Clorox, soap and Lysol on Friday between fielding calls from worried
parents. While the school has had no known cases among its students,
Molina supported the government’s decision to shutter classes,
especially in preschools.
“It’s great they are taking precautions,” she said. “I think it’s a really good idea.”