MEXICO CITY — Mexico's government is suspending all nonessential activity of the federal government and private business as the number of confirmed swine flu cases jumped.
The decision came as global health authorities warned Wednesday that swine flu was threatening to bloom into a pandemic, and the virus spread farther in Europe even as the outbreak appeared to stabilize at its epicenter. A toddler who succumbed in Texas became the first death outside Mexico.
Health Secretary José Angel Córdova Villalobos announced the move to shut down most of the country’s government and economy shortly after his department reported that confirmed cases of infection with the new strain of influenza had risen. The death toll in Mexico is believed to be 160.
President Felipe Calderon asked Mexicans to stay at home, saying their houses were the safest place to be.
"In the last several days, Mexico has faced one of the most serious problems in recent years," Calderon said in a nationally televised address. Calderon brushed aside criticisms that the government response was slow, stressing several times that authorities had reacted "immediately."
He said authorities would use the partial shutdown to weigh whether to extend the emergency measures, or "if it is possible to phase out some" restrictions.
In addition to the deaths, the virus is believed to have sickened 2,498 people across Mexico. But only 1,311 suspected swine flu patients remained hospitalized, and a closer look at daily admissions and deaths at Mexico’s public hospitals suggests the outbreak may have peaked during three grim days last week when thousands of people complained of flu symptoms.
Cordova said nonessential federal government offices will be closed from May 1-5. Friday is a national holiday in Mexico and many government offices are usually closed. He said all nonessential private businesses must also close for that period but essential services like transport, supermarkets, trash collection, hospital will remain open.
Cordova said at a news conference in Mexico City it was up to the heads of individual departments to determine which services were essential and which were nonessential, but he stressed that vital services like police agencies and airports would remain open, as would crucial economic services like telecommunications, pharmacies and public transportation.
Treasury Secretary Agustin Carstens says the flu epidemic may cost the economy between 0.3 and 0.5 percent of GDP.
The World Health Organization said Wednesday that efforts to produce a vaccine against the virus should be ramped up.
"It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic," WHO Director General Margaret Chan said in Geneva. "We do not have all the answers right now, but we will get them."
Earlier Wednesday, Mexico City authorities urged residents to dine at home to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
This report includes information from The Associated Press and Reuters.