Flu has "pandemic potential," WHO official warns

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.”

Mexican health authorities also began handing out vaccines to a more traditional strain of influenza last week but abandoned them on Friday after the WHO said that they would be ineffective against the killer virus.

Officials at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta said they are working on a new vaccine after news that eight people are suffering from what appears to be the same virus in the United States.

To try and stop the disease spreading in Mexico, the government has closed all schools, universities, theaters and museums in the capital of 20 million until further notice — the first such shutdown since the city was shattered by an earthquake in 1985.

People were also advised to stay at home, avoid public places, wear face masks, and refrain from handshakes and kisses.

Meanwhile, concerts and football games were canceled and a weekend match at the 100,000-capacity Aztec soccer stadium was to be played to empty seats.

Such encroachments on everyday life have angered some. Roberto Santino, a 60-year-old building site foremen, even alleged the whole thing could be a government conspiracy.

“It’s probably all just made up to keep our minds off the global recession,” Santino said. “Our government has been using these tactics for years.”

Another conspiracy theory was that warring drug cartels, who killed eight civilians in a grenade attack in September, could be behind the misery.

“Who knows what is going on. Are the narco cartels using a secret weapon?” said Lionel Trujillo, a 42-year-old salesman, while nervously fingering a blue surgical mask covering his mouth and nose.

Mexican Health Minister Jose Cordova called for calm in a series of news conferences and television interviews.

Cordova said the full scale of the virus outbreak will not be understood for 10 days or so, but there were some indications that it was stable. “It does not appear to be spreading exponentially, which is the big fear for a virus such as this,” he said on the national network Televisa.

Still, some residents were taking no chances.

Gisela Hernandez, a 34-year-old housewife, said she had stocked up at the supermarket and hoped to stay put in her home until the crisis had died down.

“The worst thing is that you don’t know who has this virus. Maybe your neighbor has got it. Maybe the guy in the corner shop or the restaurant has it,” she said. “The only safe way is to stay in your house.”

Read more about Mexico:

Clash of the cartels: a guide

Record number of guns in Mexico traced to the US

Analysis: Mexico a failing state?