IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Mexican students return to class amid flu fears

Millions of children, many wearing surgical masks, returned to scrubbed and disinfected classrooms Monday after a nationwide shutdown to curb the spread of swine flu in Mexico.
Image: Elementary sudents have their temperature checked as school resumes in Mexico City.
A teacher measures the temperature of a boy as he arrives for his first day of school since the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico City, on Monday.Gregory Bull / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Millions of children, many wearing surgical masks, returned to scrubbed and disinfected classrooms Monday after a nationwide shutdown to curb the spread of swine flu in Mexico.

Mainland China got its first confirmed swine flu case — a Chinese man who had been studying in the United States — prompting a scramble to find and quarantine more than 200 fellow passengers on his flight to China. But no special precautions were planned at the man’s University of Missouri campus.

And a new study out Monday concludes that the potentially rapid spread of the virus justifies the World Health Organization’s global pandemic alert. While WHO is reporting about 4,800 confirmed cases in 30 countries, the analysis published in the journal Science estimates there have been between 6,000 and 32,000 cases in Mexico alone.

The study estimates that between 0.4 percent and 1.4 percent of swine flu cases are fatal — and that each infected person infects between 1.4 and 1.6 people in turn — but data remains incomplete, said lead author Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London. “It’s very difficult to quantify the human health impact at this stage,” he said.

Some Mexican parents were worried about sending their children back so soon.

“Imagine with this disease. What if she gets it?” said Filomena Pena Carriles, lining up outside the Ignacio L. Vallarta elementary school in Mexico City with her 8-year-old daughter Esmeralda, who wore a mask as she waited for teachers to begin checking each of the 135 students for flu symptoms.

Mexico’s last confirmed swine flu death occured a week ago on May 4, although several more recent deaths are being analyzed, and Mexico has confirmed no new infections since Thursday. Tests on backlogged samples from earlier deaths caused Mexico’s toll to rise by eight on Monday.

“We could now be in a declining phase, toward the extinction of the epidemic, but this does not suggest a total relaxation of safety measures,” Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said.

U.S. overtakes Mexico
The swine flu epidemic is continuing to spread around the globe, with 61 deaths tied to the virus — 56 in Mexico, three in the U.S., one in Canada and one in Costa Rica.

Antivirals such as Tamiflu can help fight swine flu if administered early, and many rich nations have stockpiles bought from Swiss drugmaker, Roche. But poor countries generally have only enough Tamiflu to treat a tiny fraction of their populations.

WHO has stockpiled millions of Tamiflu treatments donated by Roche, and is sending 2.4 million treatments to 72 poor countries. That leaves millions of people exposed, so Roche has taken other measures to help close the gap — licensing two companies in China and one company in India (Hetero Drugs) to produce generic versions, and transferring technology to a company in South Africa. Roche also has offered Tamiflu at a discounted price of 12 euros ($16) per treatment to poor nations.

“We remain ready to discuss options with any manufacturers who can make Tamiflu,” said David Reddy, who works on Roche’s global pandemic task force.

The United States now has the most confirmed cases — more than 2,000 in 44 states — according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mexico has confirmed 2,059 cases, including two U.S. citizens and a Scot, Cordova said.

Mexican high schools and universities restarted last Thursday. But at least seven of Mexico’s 31 states put off reopening schools for younger children due to a rise in suspected flu cases in some regions.

Crews worked through the weekend to cleanse school buildings and stock them with sanitary supplies as 25 million children prepared to resume their studies. Primary schools in the Mexico City region had been closed for 17 days.

Secretary of Public Education Alonso Lujambio urged parents not to send sick children to school, and told teachers to be on guard. Gym classes and all ceremonies remain suspended as an added precaution, and any students with symptoms were to be stopped at the door and sent home by teams.

“School life will return to normal as long as the safeguards we have put in place are effective. Help us in this,” Lujambio said.

The reopening of kindergartens and primary schools is the latest step in Mexico’s efforts to restore a sense of normality after the flu scare. Businesses, restaurants and bars gradually resumed operations over the past week, and except for public servants and restaurant workers, it is less and less common to see people wearing surgical masks.

Blow to tourism
The blow to tourism and production has been severe, however. Mexico’s Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa told the Spanish daily ABC that the crisis could cost Mexico 1 percent of gross domestic product this year.

The impact goes well beyond Mexico’s borders: 30 Mexican companies have dropped out of a Shanghai trade fair May 19-21 after China withdrew Mexico’s “guest of honor” status.

Mexican officials were already angry over China’s quarantining of dozens of Mexican travelers, airline flight cancellations and a ban on its pork products — part of a wider series of snubs by many nations that has left Mexico feeling unfairly singled out.

China has defended such steps as necessary to keep swine flu from spreading in the world’s most populous nation.

But while China sent out messages by radio, television and telephone text asking fellow passengers of the Chinese graduate student to report to authorities, no added precautions were planned at his 30,200-student campus in Missouri, according to a university spokesman, and his faculty adviser said university officials asked him to not discuss the case.

Mexico said Sunday that 13 Mexicans remained in quarantine in China and one in Singapore. Last week Mexico chartered a flight to bring home dozens of its citizens from China. It was unclear if the 14 mentioned Sunday had been placed under restrictions in China since the first group was brought home.