MEXICO CITY: A new virus has killed up to 149 people in Mexico and the World Health Organization moved closer on Monday to declaring it the first flu pandemic in 40 years as more people were infected in the United States and Europe.
The WHO raised its pandemic alert level for the swine flu virus to phase 4, indicating a significantly increased risk of a pandemic, a global outbreak of a serious disease.
The last such outbreak, a “Hong Kong” flu pandemic in 1968, killed about 1 million people.
Although the new flu strain has so far killed people only in Mexico, there were more than 40 confirmed cases in the United States, including 20 at a New York City school where eight cases were already identified.
In Mexico City, fearful Christians paraded a centuries-old statue of Jesus, believed to protect against disease, through the streets for the first time in more than a century.
The swine flu is not caught from eating pig meat products, but several countries imposed import bans on pork from the United States. Stocks in companies such as airlines were also hit as investors worried about the impact on travel.
Spain became the first country in Europe to confirm a case of swine flu when a man who returned from a trip to Mexico last week was found to have the virus.
Texas health authorities confirmed a third case of swine flu at a school near the Mexican border and California said it now had 11 confirmed cases.
The U.S. State Department and the European Union urged citizens to avoid non-essential travel Mexico and other areas affected by swine flu.
Mexico relies on tourism as its third biggest source of foreign currency and millions of Americans travel there every year.
Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said the outbreak was now suspected of having killed 149 people and warned the number of cases would keep rising.
Thirty-three million Mexican schoolchildren will be off school until the middle of next week as authorities seek to contain the outbreak. Schools in the sprawling capital had already been closed but the government ordered classes canceled across the country until May 6.
Most of the those who died were between 20 and 50 years of age, an ominous sign because a hallmark of past pandemics has been the high rate of fatalities among healthy young adults.
Worldwide, seasonal flu kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people in an average year but the new strain worries experts because it spreads rapidly between humans and there is vaccine for it. AGENCIES