Mexico closes schools nationwide due to swine flu

By PETER ORSI, Associated Press Writer Peter Orsi, Associated Press Writer

MEXICO CITY - Mexico canceled school nationwide Monday and warned the death toll from a swine flu epidemic believed to have killed 149 people would keep rising before it can be contained.

Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said 20 of the deaths have been confirmed to be from swine flu and the government was awaiting results on the other deaths.

"We are the most critical moment of the epidemic. The number of cases will keep rising so we have to reinforce preventative measures," Cordova said at a news conference that was briefly shaken by an earthquake centered in southern Mexico.

Cordova said 1,995 people have been hospitalized with serious cases of pneumonia since the first case of swine flu was reported on April 13. The government does not yet know how many were swine flu.

Of those hospitalized, 1,070 have been released.

Cordova said school at all levels nationwide were suspended until May 6, extending an order already in place in Mexico City and five of the country's 32 states.

At least two weeks after the first swine flu case, the Mexican government has yet to say where and how the epidemic began or give details on the victims.

Cordova said the health department lacked the staff to visit the homes of all those suspected to have died from the disease. But he assured that the country had enough medicine to treat the ill.

Labor Secretary Javier Lozano Alarcon said employers should isolate anyone showing up for work with fever, cough, sore throat or other signs of the flu.

The Mexico City government is considering a complete shutdown if the death toll keeps rising, including all public transport. Mayor Marcelo Ebrard said surgical masks were being distributed at subway and bus stops across the city.

The disease has hit hardest in the capital, but life was disrupted from Tijuana to Acapulco, a lucrative Pacific resort town where night clubs and bars were ordered closed until further notice. Acapulco Mayor Manuel Anorve Banos said he was worried about tourists from Mexico City spreading the disease.

Some city dwellers headed to the beach, taking advantage of the closed schools. But those who live day-to-day worried about making ends meet if the city completely shuts down.

"We're going to have to stop working," said Raul Alvarez Torres, who relies on the subway to get from his gritty suburb to his shoe shining stand in an upscale Mexico city neighborhood each day. "If people have no transport, getting around is impossible."

For the first time in 300 years, the cathedral in Mexico City's main plaza has pulled an icon of the Lord of Health from storage, and worshippers placed it on the principal altar.

The Rev. Cuauhtemoc Islas said it would remain there until the medical emergency is over, Mexico's government news agency Notimex reported.

But the bad news kept coming. Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said late Sunday the number of suspected swine flu cases in Mexico had climbed to 1,614, including 103 deaths.

Authorities were trying to confirm how many new cases were caused by the virus, which has been confirmed or suspected in at least a half-dozen other countries and has caused the U.S. to declare a health emergency.

But even as Mexican officials urged those with flu symptoms to seek medical help, some complained of being turned away.

In Toluca, a city west of the capital, one family said health authorities refused to treat a relative Sunday who had full-blown flu symptoms and could barely stand. The man, 31-year-old truck driver Elias Camacho, was even ordered out of a government ambulance, his father-in-law told The Associated Press.

Paramedics complained that Camacho - who had a fever, was coughing and had body aches - was contagious, Jorge Martinez Cruz said.

Family members took him by taxi to a public hospital, but a doctor there denied Camacho was sick and told the trio to leave, Martinez said.

"The government told us that if we have these symptoms, we should go to these places, but look how they treat us," Martinez said. Camacho was finally admitted to the hospital - and placed in an area marked "restricted" - after a doctor at a private clinic notified state health authorities, Martinez said.

Jose Isaac Cepeda, who has had fever, diarrhea and joint pains since Friday, said he was turned away from two hospitals - the first because he isn't registered in the public health system, and the second "because they say they're too busy."

Mexico City's two main chains of movie theaters announced they were closing. The government suspended nearly all events at a national juvenile Olympics taking place in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego. Only swimming meets continued, without spectators.

"I worked so hard for this competition. I've been training for nearly a year and I would have liked to have an audience," said 13-year-old swimmer Jacqueline Sainz.


Associated Press writer Olga R. Rodriguez in Toluca contributed to this report.