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Disease experts say flu threat in Mexico diminished

By Voice of America, May 7, 2009 — Voice of America, May 7, 2009

In Mexico, authorities say 44 people have now died of the H1N1 influenza-A virus and they are urging caution as life returns to normal after bars, restaurants and most public gatherings were closed down as a precautionary measure. While health experts say the virus is still a concern, they believe the worst is over, at least for now.

Mexican health minister Jose Angel Cordova confirmed Thursday that 44 deaths have now been attributed to the H1N1 virus.

He says there have been 1,204 cases confirmed in Mexico so far and that 44 of those have resulted in death. He says the rate of new infections seems to have slowed, however, he still recommends caution, especially in public places.

He said people should not crowd together in public places, staying, at minimum, one meter, 70 centimeters from the next person or family in a stadium or auditorium. He also recommends the use of face masks in public and the use of anti-microbial gels and frequent hand washing.

Some Mexicans have questioned the logic of shutting down most of the country because of the flu threat, only to re-open everything a little over a week later. But both Mexican and international health officials say such measures probably kept the virus from spreading further than it did.

One of the health experts supporting the Mexican actions is Thomas Ksiazek at the Galveston National Laboratory on the campus of the University of Texas Medical Branch.

"They erred on the side of caution, initially, until they could take a look at what the situation appeared to be," said Thomas Ksiazek. "I think they have done some analysis of how much transmission there was and they are changing their preventive measures on the basis of what they have seen and now know."

Ksiazek just returned from a two-day visit to the Mexican state of Veracruz, where some of the early cases of the new flu strain were reported. He says laboratories and hospitals there are well prepared to handle whatever new cases may appear.

He says one thing that mitigates against a worsening epidemic in Mexico at this time is the season. Ksiazek says the virus could still threaten people in the southern hemisphere, where flu season is starting, but the main threat for the northern hemisphere may be months away when the new flu season begins.

"I think it is still possible that this could become a major epidemic or so-called pandemic strain as the next flu season visits us and our neighbors to the south may yet encounter it this year," said Ksiazek.

For this reason, Ksiazek says, developing a vaccine against this virus is very important. He says a number of laboratories around the world have samples of the virus they can use to create a vaccine. If they do not encounter problems, he says, pharmaceutical companies may be able to produce large quantities of the vaccine before the end of this year.

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