MARK STEVENSON, Associated Press Writer Mark Stevenson, Associated Press Writer – 23 mins ago
MEXICO CITY – As Mexico struggled against the odds Saturday to contain a strange new flu that has killed as many as 68 and perhaps sickened more than 1,000, it was becoming clearer that the government hasn't moved quickly enough to head off what the World Health Organization said has the potential to become a global epidemic.
The World Health Organization said the outbreak has become a "public health emergency of international concern" and asked countries around the world to step up reporting and surveillance of the disease and implement a coordinated response to contain it.
But Mexicans were dying for weeks at least before U.S. scientists identified the strain — a combination of swine, bird and human influenza that people may have no natural immunity to. Now, even controlling passengers at airports and bus stations may not keep it from spreading, epidemiologists say.
The disease has already reached Texas, California and Kansas, and 24 new suspected cases were reported Saturday in Mexico City alone, where authorities suspended schools and all public events until further notice. More than 500 concerts, sporting events and other gatherings were canceled in the metropolis of 20 million.
The Mexican government issued a decree authorizing President Felipe Calderon to invoke special powers letting the Health Department isolate patients and inspect homes, incoming travelers and baggage.
Officials said the decree gives clear legal authority to Health Department workers who might otherwise face reprisals.
Health workers and soldiers joined a broad effort at airports and bus stations to keep people with disease from traveling though or out of the city. But with confirmed swine flu cases in at least 6 states — and possibly as many as 14 — the efforts seemed unlikely to stop the spread of the disease.
At Mexico City's international airport, health workers passed out written questionnaires seeking to identify passengers with flu symptoms. Surgical masks and brochures were handed out at bus and subway stations. The U.S. embassy in Mexico posted a message advising U.S. citizens to avoid large crowds, shaking hands, greeting people with a kiss or using the subway.
Particularly difficult in a metropolis as crowded as Mexico City was the embassy's advice to maintain "a distance of at least six feet from other persons may decrease the risk of exposure."
Early detection and treatment are key to stopping any outbreak. WHO guidance calls for isolating the sick and blanketing everyone around them with antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu.
Now, with patients showing up all across Mexico and its teeming capital, simple math suggests that kind of response is impossible.
Mexico appears to have lost valuable days or weeks in detecting the new virus.
Health authorities started noticing a threefold spike in flu cases in late March and early April, but they thought it was a late rebound in the December-February flu season.