Flu Rx? Russia blocks U.S. pork, Costa Rica bars kissing

McClatchy NewspapersApril 28, 2009 

CARACAS, Venezuela — The government of Cuba suspended flights to and from Mexico for 48 hours, Russia banned imported pork from at least 11 U.S. states and medical help lines in Europe were inundated, as the world reacted apprehensively Tuesday to the swine flu outbreak.

Venezuela, Russia and Guatemala warned their citizens against traveling to Mexico and the United States. Peru and Britain limited the warning to Mexico.

In Costa Rica, the health minister suggested that its citizens temporarily stop greeting one another with the traditional kiss on the cheek. Costa Rican officials confirmed their first case Tuesday, a 21-year-old woman who came on a flight from Mexico last week.

Government officials everywhere were screening air travelers from Mexico for signs of the potentially deadly flu. At Caracas and many other airports, they wore masks and rubber gloves.

"Fear spreads around the globe like a Mexican wave," declared the London Times, which gave the flu story a banner headline, as did most big newspapers in Europe.

People everywhere were changing their habits to avoid the virus.

"We're trying not to go to any big gatherings, and we're washing our hands constantly," said Luis Garcia, a 57-year-old auto parts seller who was interviewed in a Caracas park Tuesday. "I think this can be controlled. But it's important to take the precaution of having good hygiene."

In London, hundreds of people contacted one doctor's office seeking Tamiflu, an anti-viral medication. They included "very senior people in various parts of government," Dr. Laurence Gerlis, who operates a private practice, told the British Broadcasting Corp.

There were indications that many governments may be overreacting.

Going beyond pork, Russia prohibited imports of all raw meat from Mexico as well as from California, Texas and Kansas. Health officials said, however, that there's no link between eating any kind of meat and being infected with swine flu.

Despite the rising number of suspect cases in Europe, officials at the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control in Stockholm, Sweden, noted that outside Mexico, all confirmed cases of the flu appeared to be minor and no one had died.

European government officials attempted to express concern without stoking panic. The European Union's health minister had to backtrack after suggesting Monday that Europeans should avoid traveling to the United States and Mexico.

The World Health Organization has said the epidemic isn't serious enough yet to clamp down on traveling from one country to another.

That didn't stop Cuba from becoming the first country to halt air traffic with Mexico.

Venezuelan Vice President Ramon Carrizalez recommended that travelers to the United States and Mexico "postpone or suspend their trips to diminish the risk" of being infected.

Israel took a more measured approach, after an emergency meeting chaired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The outbreak "is currently a relatively mild — and not fatal — disease" in the Middle East, the prime minister's office said.

Israel hospitalized in isolation two recent returnees from Mexico who were suffering from swine flu.

Israel's deputy health minister irked some Mexican leaders by trying to label the cause of the outbreak the "Mexican flu" instead of the "swine flu." The change would have allowed strict religious Jews from having to utter the word of an animal that's considered dirty and nonkosher.

Nicaragua prohibited imports of live pigs from Mexico.

Nicaragua's health minister, Guillermo Gonzalez, declared a national emergency and announced plans to train 35,000 teachers and student volunteers to detect the virus throughout the country.

A leading specialist in respiratory diseases issued worrisome forecasts for London.

Peter Openshaw, the director of the Center for Respiratory Infection at Imperial College, predicted that there are people walking around London with the virus who don't know it yet. The first suspected case in London was admitted to the hospital Wednesday.

"The next week will be critical as we will begin to see just how severe the infections are outside Mexico," Openshaw added. "The hope is that this will just be an 'ordinary' flu. But looking at the fatalities in Mexico, it is impossible to say how bad it will be at the moment."

In Brazil, a 40-year-old man was hospitalized with swine flu Tuesday in the northern coastal city of Salvador, the Brazilian government news agency reported. The man had just returned from Miami. He was the 12th person known to be suffering from the malady in Brazil.

Guatemala has yet to confirm the presence of swine flu, but government officials acknowledge a high vulnerability to the virus since Guatemala borders Mexico and has close commercial ties with its neighbor.

Waleska Cecena, the director of the National Center of Epidemiology, told a local radio station that Guatemala faced the "imminent arrival of an epidemic." Authorities say they're prepared to confront it. Meanwhile, a smattering of Guatemala City residents have begun to wear face masks in public.

In Bogota, Colombia, pork consumption has declined even though health authorities say it presents no risk.

"You feel afraid, especially when you go to the airport," said Liliana Gonzalez, a 34-year-old expectant mother. "You can get the illness from anyone."

(Dion Nissenbaum in Jerusalem, Tom Lasseter in Moscow and McClatchy special correspondents Blake Schmidt in Managua, Nicaragua, Julie Sell in London, Jenny Carolina in Bogota, Colombia, and Jill Replogle in Guatemala City, Guatemala, contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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