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 Organization (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,” he said in his first televised address since the crisis erupted last week.
Twelve countries have reported cases of the H1N1 strain, with the Netherlands the latest to join the list. It said a three-year-old, who had recently returned from Mexico, had contracted the virus.
Switzerland also confirmed its first case on Thursday in a man returning from Mexico. Peru reported what appeared to be the first case in Latin America outside Mexico, also in someone who had been to the country.
On Wednesday, Texan officials had reported the first swine flu death outside Mexico, a 22-month-old visiting Mexican boy.
WHO raised its alert level to phase V, 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 told a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday. “The biggest question is this: how severe will the pandemic be, especially now at the start.”
The organization later issued guidance recommending all countries track any suspect cases and ensure medical workers dealing with them wear protective masks and gloves.
WHO has stopped short of recommending travel restrictions, border closures or any limitation on the movement of people, goods or services.
World stocks rally
Mexico’s peso currency weakened sharply after the government called for chunks of the economy to close. The peso fell 1.6% to 13.83 per dollar.
But world stocks hit a four-month peak on economic optimism, showing little sign of fears over the flu.
Earlier in the week they fell on worries that a major 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 admitted to hospital.
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.
Several countries have banned pork imports, though WHO says swine flu is not spread by eating pork. Egypt started confiscating and slaughtering pig herds despite criticism from the United Nations (UN).
“There is no reason to do that. It’s not a swine influenza, it’s a human influenza,” said Joseph Domenech, chief veterinary officer of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN. FAO is lobbying for a name change for the virus.