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Mexico set to reopen schools, business

By Mark Stevenson
Associated Press / May 5, 2009
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MEXICO CITY - Mexico declared a return to "normalcy" yesterday, preparing to reopen businesses and schools even as the swine flu virus sickened more than 1,200 people in 20 countries.

World health officials said the global epidemic is still in its early stages, and that a pandemic could be declared in the days to come. But Mexico's president said it was waning at its epicenter, justifying tomorrow's end to a five-day nationwide shutdown he credits for reducing the spread of the new virus.

Already, streets in the capital seemed more lively, with more vehicles, and fewer people wearing face masks. Some cafes even reopened ahead of time. President Felipe Calderón said universities and high schools will reopen on Thursday, and younger schoolchildren should report back to school on May 11.

"The school schedule will resume with the guarantee that our educational institutions are in adequate hygienic condition," promised Calderón, who called on parents to join educators in a "collective" cleansing and inspection of schools nationwide.

"This is about going back to normalcy but with everyone taking better care," Calderón said.

But specialists inside Mexico's crisis center warned the virus remains active throughout Mexico and could bounce back once millions return to work and school. It also may get worse north of the border.

"The bottom line is that there hasn't been time for the severe illnesses to perhaps show up in the US yet," Marc-Alain Widdowson, a medical epidemiologist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said.

Health Secretary Jose Cordova insisted swine flu infections are trending downward after 27 deaths at the center of the epidemic. But other specialists said the known cases are almost certainly only a fraction of what's out there, meaning more illnesses could surface once crowds gather again in Mexico.

"It's clear that it's just about everywhere in Mexico. I think now there is considerable person-to-person transmission," Widdowson said. And now that the virus is taking off in the United States, chances of severe cases could rise as well. "We've seen in many of the cases in Mexico, there's been sometimes five to seven days of being mildly ill with increasing respiratory distress and then being hospitalized, and then spending five days or a week in hospital, so that's a timeline of two weeks," he said.

As of yesterday, Mexico had 727 confirmed cases, and US cases grew to at least 300 in 36 states. Globally, the virus has reached more than 1,276 people in 20 countries, according to the World Health Organization.

The WHO was studying whether to raise the pandemic alert to 6, its highest, which would mean a global outbreak has begun. WHO uses the term pandemic to refer to geographic spread rather than severity.