Mexico City: Mexican President Felipe Calderon told his people to stay home from Friday for a five-day partial shutdown of the economy, after the World Health Organisation (WHO) said a swine flu pandemic was imminent.
Calderon ordered government offices and private businesses not crucial to the economy to stop work to avoid further infections from the new virus, which has killed up to 176 people in Mexico and is now spreading around the world.
“There is no safer place than your own home to avoid being infected with the flu virus,” Calderon said in his first televised address since the crisis erupted last week.
Eleven countries have reported cases of the H1N1 strain, and Texas officials said that a 22-month-old Mexican boy had died in Texas while on a family visit, the first confirmed swine flu death outside Mexico.
Switzerland confirmed on Thursday its first case, saying a man returning from Mexico had tested positive for the flu.
The WHO raised the official alert level to phase 5, the last step before a pandemic.
“Influenza pandemics must be taken seriously precisely because of their capacity to spread rapidly to every country in the world,” WHO director general Margaret Chan said in Geneva on Wednesday.
“The biggest question is this: how severe will the pandemic be, especially now at the start,” Chan said adding that the world is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history.
World stock markets rally
Mexico’s peso currency weakened sharply early on Thursday after the government called for chunks of the economy to close. The peso fell 1.6% to 13.83 per dollar.
But world stocks struck a four-month peak, powered by gains in Asia on Thursday, as investors took heart from signs of improvement in the US economy.
Markets earlier in the week had taken fright and fallen on worries that a major flu outbreak could hit the struggling global economy. Almost all those infected outside Mexico have had mild symptoms, and only a handful of people have been hospitalized.
In Mexico City, a metropolis of 20 million, all schools, restaurants, nightclubs and public events have been shut down to try to stop the disease from spreading, bringing normal life to a virtual standstill.
Spain reported the first case in Europe of swine flu in a person who had not been to Mexico, illustrating the danger of person-to-person transmission.
Both US and European officials have said that they expect to see swine flu deaths.
President Barack Obama said during an evening news conference at the White House on Wednesday that there was no need for panic and rejected the possibility of closing the border with Mexico.
“At this point, (health officials) have not recommended a border closing,” he said.
“From their perspective, it would be akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out, because we already have cases here in the United States,” he said.
Obama also praised his predecessor for stockpiling anti-viral medication in anticipation of such an outbreak.
“I think the Bush administration did a good job of creating the infrastructure so that we can respond,” Obama said adding: “For example, we’ve got 50 million courses of anti-viral drugs in the event that they’re needed.”
Expert says virus relatively weak
Masato Tashiro, head of the influenza virus research centre at Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Disease and a member of the WHO emergency committee, told Japan’s Nikkei newspaper it appeared the H1N1 strain was far less dangerous than avian flu.
“The virus is relatively weak and about the same as regular influenza viruses passed on via human-to-human contact. I don’t believe it will become virulent,” he was quoted as saying.
“The threat to health from the avian influenza and its fatality rate is much greater than the new flu,” he said.
“I am very worried that we will use up the stockpile of anti-flu medicine and be unarmed before we need to fight against the avian influenza. The greatest threat to mankind remains the H5N1 avian influenza,” he added.
WHO’s Chan urged companies who make the drugs to ramp up production. Two antiviral drugs — Relenza, made by GlaxoSmithKline and Tamiflu, made by Roche AG and Gilead Sciences Inc — have been shown to work against the H1N1 strain.
Mexico’s central bank warned the outbreak could deepen the nation’s recession, hurting an economy that already shrank by as much as 8 percent from the previous year in the first quarter.
France said it would seek a European Union ban on flights to Mexico. The EU, the United States and Canada have advised against non-essential travel to Mexico, and many tourists were hurrying to leave, crowding airports.