MEXICO CITY - Three years after swine flu closed Mexico City and caused an international scare, the Mexican government and local media are at odds over the severity of this season's flu virus. Newspapers are warning of an alarming increase in cases while the government insists there is no cause for alarm.
Federal and state health officials agree there is an increase, but they say the number of cases is within the range of a normal flu season.
The Mexican health ministry, however, has listed confusing numbers on its website and it hasn't specified the rise in cases despite repeated requests from The Associated Press.
The federal education ministry said Wednesday that it was instituting screening measures in all elementary schools for the H1N1 flu strain, commonly called swine flu when the first outbreak was discovered in Mexico in March 2009. The ministry revised its message later to say screenings are in place only at schools where children exhibit symptoms.
Local media reported a handful of schools in Mexico City have closed. The education ministry said they were private schools shuttered by administrators and parents, not by official government action.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that while Mexico is seeing more cases of the H1N1 virus, the U.S. is seeing more cases of a different strain, H3N2. Antibodies for both are part of this year's flu vaccine. H1N1 is now considered a seasonal flu.
"We are not aware of any unusual changes in the virus in Mexico that would be concerning," CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said in an email to The Associated Press.
Besides the contradicting statements about screenings at schools, the Mexican government has also put out conflicting statistics.
The health ministry on Sunday reported 637 cases of confirmed flu cases so far in 2012 along with 10 deaths — nine of them associated with 573 cases of H1N1.
On Jan. 15, it reported far lower numbers: 181 confirmed cases for all strains of flu and five deaths for 2012, meaning cases would have increased 250 per cent in just one week.
The same health bulletin said that for all of last year, there were 870 cases of all strains of flu and 35 deaths.
The World Health Organization in 2009 declared swine flu the first global flu pandemic in 40 years after the outbreak of cases in Mexico that spring and then the strain spread to other countries.
Mexican authorities closed restaurants, schools, museums, libraries and theatres to stop the spread of the disease as initial reports suggested it was killing as many as one in 15 of those infected — a horrifying death rate that would have been more than three times higher than the devastating flu pandemic of 1918-19.
Additional investigation in Mexico suggested that many people had suffered only mild illness. Those cases were not counted in initial reports, meaning the death rate was much, much lower than originally estimated.
By July 2010, the Mexican government reported nearly 76,000 cases of H1N1 and more than 1,300 deaths, the most recent accumulated statistics on its website.
The World Health Organizations estimates that flu causes 3 million to 5 million cases of severe illness worldwide every year, with about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths, primarily among the elderly and the chronically ill.