MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico lowered its estimated death toll from a new strain of flu to up to 101 on Friday from as many as 176 previously and voiced hope it may be getting control of an epidemic that has raised fears of a pandemic.
Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said laboratory tests on samples from some of the people who died from abnormal fevers in recent weeks came back negative for the new H1N1 virus. He said 16 deaths are confirmed as caused by the swine flu and tests are being run on samples from the other 85 victims.
Cordova cautioned, however, that it was too early to say that Mexico has beaten the new swine flu that has infected people in 15 countries and led to chunks of the economy being shut down to curb the rate of infection.
“For now it’s unpredictable, we don’t have that information,” he said, noting that epidemics can often peak again after an initial spurt in infections drops off.
Mexico has released a confusing soup of flu victim data in recent days but public hospitals have noticed a steady drop in the number of patients turning up with severe flu symptoms, suggesting the infection rate is declining.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, also took a calmer tone than in past days, saying the flu outbreak may not be as severe as it looked at first and citing many mild cases that were not immediately noticed.
Fifteen countries have confirmed cases of the new H1N1 swine flu virus. South Korea confirmed its first case at the weekend, a day after Hong Kong reported Asia’s first H1N1 patient and sealed off a hotel where the man had been staying.
Almost all infections outside Mexico have been mild, and only a handful of patients have required hospital treatment.
In Mexico, many businesses were closed for a five-day break on a presidential order to help slow the spread of the disease. The capital’s mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, said emergency measures against the virus were bringing results.
“This has led us to a situation where the numbers are getting better every day,” he said. However, he cautioned, “I’m not saying we should let our guard down.”
Mexican public hospitals that treat roughly half the country admitted just 46 patients with severe flu symptoms on Thursday, down from 212 patients on April 20.
Cordova said that out of 159 files on suspected flu victims, tests showed 58 had died of other causes.
In Hong Kong, police in surgical masks stood guard at a hotel where a 25-year-old Mexican visitor was staying before becoming the first verified case in Asia, and stopped guests from leaving.
The United States, which has the most confirmed infections outside Mexico, now has 145 cases across 22 states after two people fell sick in Florida and one in Connecticut.
The CDC said it had confirmed 97 cases and seven deaths in Mexico blamed on the H1N1 strain. The only death outside Mexico has been a Mexican toddler in the United States.
U.S. President Barack Obama praised efforts to fight the virus. “I think that those who have been on top of this have done an extraordinary job. I’m optimistic that we’re going to be able to manage this effectively but we still have more work to do,” he said after a Cabinet meeting. [nWAT011389]
Much of Mexico shut down until Wednesday to help contain the outbreak. Building sites, car plants, factories, corporate and government offices will let workers stay home and extend a long weekend that began with the May 1 holiday.
The Labour Ministry said it would fine or forcibly close companies that stay open Monday and Tuesday.
Restaurants that would normally cater to families off work were shut as far north as the border city of Tijuana. Ice cream vendors at shuttered parks rued a dearth of clients.
Many families cancelled trips to beach resorts, but some felt relieved the death toll seemed to be stabilizing after a week of people wearing face masks and avoiding crowds.
“We are going to keep taking precautions but I feel a little less worried now,” said Jessica Santiago, 29, an optometrist walking her dog beside a deserted park.
Washington urged China and Russia to end restrictions on U.S. pork, noting the flu cannot be spread by food.
The WHO has said it would call the new virus strain Influenza A (H1N1), not “swine flu,” since there is no evidence that pigs have the virus or can transmit it to humans.
Experts have struggled to explain why so many deaths have occurred in Mexico and nowhere else. On Friday, the CDC suggested a simple explanation: there are many cases in Mexico, most are mild, and just the bad ones have been seen so far.
Scientists hope to get a clearer picture with data from test kits the CDC sent to Mexico to measure the extent of the illness. Even common seasonal influenza kills an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 people globally every year.
Additional reporting by Jason Lange, Helen Popper, Lewis Krauskopf, Karen Jacobs, Maggie Fox, Donny Kwok, Robin Emmott; Editing by Doina Chiacu