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Flu has "pandemic potential," WHO official warns

Fear and panic spread through Mexico as the number of flu deaths rises.

People wear masks as they pray in Mexico City's Metropolitan Cathedral April 25, 2009. (Eliana Aponte/Reuters)

MEXICO CITY — One Mexico City resident believed the government was locking flu victims up in prison. Another alleged the government itself was actually inventing the whole outbreak. A third thought it could be some kind of biological warfare by drug cartels.

With up to 68 people dead from a new lethal strain of swine flu hitting Mexico, fear, panic and downright paranoia are spreading through the streets of the Mexican capital as fast as the disease itself.

The horror stories only got bigger as the World Health Organization said Saturday that those who perished in Mexico’s hospitals could be the first victims of a global pandemic with the potential to wipe out millions.

"It has pandemic potential because it is infecting people (instead of pigs)," WHO Director General Margaret Chan said at an emergency meeting in Geneva. “We are seriously concerned.”

Notorious pandemics such as the Spanish Flu — which wiped out about 50 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1919 — started when viruses jumped from animals to humans, creating a new mutant strain which no one was resistant to.

Also akin to these pandemics, most of the victims have been men and women in their prime — from 25 to 45 years old — rather than the very old and very young, who tend to be struck by seasonal flu.

The brutal symptoms described by medical workers are also adding to the shockwaves of fear.

While starting like a normal flu, victims soon have temperatures that shoot to 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and muscle aches so painful they are almost paralyzing.

“It’s so intense it can be debilitating. It is also characterized by extremely painful headaches and eventually diarrhea and vomiting,” said Mexico City Health Secretary Armando Ahued. “We are urging everyone with symptoms to go to a hospital. Above all they should not self-medicate.”

Tests have confirmed that the swine flu — known medically as H1N1 influenza — is responsible for at least 20 deaths in such cases in Mexico in recent weeks. Another 48 similar deaths are still being examined.

More than 1,000 people have also been admitted to hospitals across the country suffering from the same symptoms.

Patients confirmed to have the sickness are being kept in isolation and given anti-viral drugs known in Mexico as oseltamivir and zanamivir. These methods have prompted fears that you can be incarcerated for having the plague.

“Have you heard the latest news?” asked Hector Cruz, a 21-year-old shop worker. “They have got them all locked up in the East Prison. Not even their families can see them.”