Mexico is getting set to return to normal life, reopening public venues in hopes that the worst of the swine flu outbreak is over – even after confirmation of another death in the United States.
After five days of a virtual total shutdown to try to stop the spread of the virus at the centre of a global health scare, the country was to allow schools, restaurants and other public spaces to again open their doors to the public.
“This virus is still circulating,” Mexican President Felipe Calderon said in a televised address to the nation, warning people to keep taking precautions, such as hand-washing, to try to keep a lid on the A(H1N1) virus.
The emergence of the virus, a new strain that has combined human, swine and bird influenza, set off fears of a worldwide pandemic, even though only 31 people have been confirmed dead – a number in line with any “normal” flu bug.
World health officials have tallied 1,490 people infected around the globe so far, including 29 deaths in Mexico, while countries have imposed a range of measures to prevent a dangerous and massively deadly global outbreak.
Hundreds of people were still under quarantine at a hotel in Hong Kong, where health authorities sealed off the premises for seven days up until next Friday, and where memories are still fresh of the deadly 2003 SARS outbreak.
South Korea at the weekend became the second place in Asia to report a confirmed case of swine flu after Hong Kong, and the country on Tuesday confirmed its first person-to-person transmission of the disease.
In the United States, meanwhile, officials announced the first US national to die since the outbreak – a woman who had chronic underlying conditions, officials said. It was only the second flu death recorded outside of Mexico.
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said it expected “more cases, more hospitalisations and more deaths from this outbreak” in the weeks ahead.
But at the same time, US health authorities eased the restrictions for school closures, a move seen as a possible sign that the worst of the outbreak might well be over.
“This is presenting itself more like seasonal flu,” said US Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Although the worst initial fears about the outbreak have not been realised, Mexican officials said they estimated that the scare had cost the country 2.3 billion dollars.
The tourism sector was hit hard and the five-day shutdown also took its toll in a nation that was already struggling because of the worldwide economic slowdown.
Hotels in the capital were down to 10 percent occupancy, and foreign visitors were absent from the city centre and from popular tourist sites such as the country\’s famed Aztec pyramids, which were made off-limits.
While only China – the origin of the 2003 SARS epidemic – and a handful of Latin American countries cut travel ties with Mexico, several airlines, tour companies and cruise lines suspended trips to the country.
The incident strained relations between Mexico and China when 70 Mexican nationals, most or all without flu symptoms, were placed under quarantine in China after one Mexican citizen in Hong Kong was confirmed to have been infected.
Separately, about 200 British soldiers were released late Tuesday after being held overnight in Brunei when they arrived from Britain, where 27 people have been infected with the disease.
Officials said the decision to isolate the soldiers – in Brunei for military training – was a precautionary measure.
There is no dedicated vaccine against the new A(H1N1) virus, but the World Health Organization said it was sending 2.4 million courses of anti-viral drug Tamiflu to 72 nations around the world to combat the outbreak.