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Published: Monday, 5/4/2009

Swine flu's reach extends deeper across America

FROM THE BLADE'S NEWS SERVICES

MEXICO CITY - The swine flu epidemic spread deeper into the United States, Europe, and Latin America yesterday, even as Mexico's health chief hinted it soon may be time to reopen businesses and schools in the nation where the outbreak likely began.

The tally of confirmed cases in the United States jumped yesterday to 245 in 35 states, but officials said that's largely from catching up on a backlog of lab tests rather than a sudden spurt in new infections.

The new count reflects streamlining in procedures and the results of tests by states, which only recently began confirming cases, said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Because states are sending their results and there are many cases to analyze, "I expect the numbers to jump quite a bit in the next couple days," she said.

Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said the virus that has killed 19 people in Mexico and sickened at least 506 peaked there between April 23 and April 28. A drastic nationwide shutdown appears to have helped prevent the outbreak from becoming more serious, he said.

Officials will decide today whether to extend the shutdown or allow schools and businesses to reopen Wednesday. "The evolution of the epidemic is now in its declining phase," he said.

But the CDC's Dr. Schuchat said the flu appeared in Mexico before it did in the United States. "We believe we are just in the upswing here," she said. "I think it's circulating all over the U.S.. The virus has arrived, I would say, in most of the country now."

In Michigan, probable cases led to the closings of the 1,375-student Utica High School and all schools in the 19,000-student Plymouth-Canton Community School District.

Michigan reported 19 new probable cases yesterday, bringing the state's total to 39.

Unlike the common seasonal flu, swine flu appears to infect an unusually high percentage of the young: Patients' median age is 17. "Very few confirmed are over 50," Dr. Schuchat said.

Of 30 people hospitalized in this country, she said, a high proportion are older children and younger adults, a big change from the age groups generally at high risk of needing hospital care: the elderly and the very young.

The only swine flu death in the United States is that of a Mexican toddler who was visiting Texas.

On yesterday's talk shows, U.S. health officials said they were cautiously optimistic the swine flu isn't as dangerous as first feared, but urged people to take common-sense precautions.

The virus spread to Colombia in the first confirmed case in South America, worrisome because flu season is about to begin in the Southern Hemisphere.

A big concern is whether the virus will return, perhaps harder, when regular influenza begins its march. Flu season in the Southern Hemisphere is about to begin, and U.S. authorities will watch how the swine flu circulates there over the coming months as they prepare the first vaccine and decide whether to order that large amounts of it be produced in the fall.

Fear spread in other parts of the globe, much of it directed at Mexican nationals or those who have traveled to Mexico.

China quarantined more than 70 Mexican travelers in hospitals and hotels there, and Mexicans on arriving flights were being taken into isolation, said Mexico's ambassador, Jorge Guajardo.

In Egypt, police and armored cars charged into a crowd of a 1,000 irate pig farmers armed with stones and bottles, leaving 12 people injured as residents of a Cairo slum resisted government efforts to slaughter the nation's pigs to guard against swine flu.

Cairo security chief Maj. Gen. Ismail Shaer said 14 people were arrested. Seven police were among the injured in the clashes with largely Christian garbage collectors who raise pigs on the refuse and live in the slums of Manishyet Nasr.

Egypt last week ordered the slaughter of all the country's 300,000 pigs even though no cases of swine flu have been reported there. The World Health Organization has said the move was unnecessary because the virus is being spread through humans.

The organization reiterated its message that pork, ham, and sausages are all safe to eat.



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