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Mexico reports flu decline

Official says epidemic peaking, but new cases are reported in U.S., elsewhere.

A priest, wearing a mask as a precaution against the swine flu, gives Holy Communion to a woman during Mass at a church in Mexico City on Sunday. Mexico’s Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said the swine flu epidemic ‘is now in its declining phase.’

AP PHOTO

Lab technicians demonstrate one of the steps involved in identifying the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, at the New York City Public Health Laboratory in New York on Sunday.

AP PHOTO

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s health secretary said the swine flu epidemic in his country “is now in its declining phase,” even as the U.S. and five other countries in Europe and Latin America reported new cases Sunday.

China quarantined more than 70 Mexican travelers and Hong Kong isolated 350 people in a hotel as a precaution even though no new swine flu infections appeared in Asia. In Egypt, authorities’ attempt to kill all pigs as a precaution against the disease prompted pig owners to clash with police who were helping to seize their animals for slaughter.

The death toll in Mexico remains at 19, and the number of confirmed cases has increased slightly, from 473 to 506, including the dead, Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said. He said “evolution of the epidemic is now in its declining phase.”

He said data suggest the epidemic peaked sometime between April 23 and April 28, and that drastic measures — closing the nation’s schools, shuttering most of its businesses and banning mass public gatherings — apparently have helped curb the flu’s spread.

In the United States, the number of confirmed cases rose to 226 in 30 states, the Centers of Disease Control said. Swine flu has also killed one toddler in the U.S. and has spread to 18 countries worldwide — but experts believe the actual spread is much wider.

The global caseload was nearing 800 and growing — the vast majority in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. Colombia on Sunday reported South America’s first confirmed case of swine flu a day after Costa Rica reported the first in Central America.

The Spanish Health Ministry said the country now has 40 confirmed cases of swine flu — making it the European nation hardest hit by the virus. It said most of the victims have already recovered. All but two had recently visited Mexico.

Britain, Italy and Germany also reported new cases.

But just over a week into the outbreak, the virus largely remains an unpredictable mystery.

Mexico’s health secretary said 11 people were suspected to have died from the virus in the previous 24 hours. The alarming news came after the epidemic’s toll in Mexico appeared to have been leveling off.

In China, Mexicans were being asked to identify themselves on arriving flights and isolated from other travelers after landing, said Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s ambassador to the country. None of those in isolation has presented symptoms and most had no contact with infected persons or places, he said.

Hong Kong — which was criticized for delaying quarantine measures during the SARS outbreak — sealed the downtown Metropark Hotel, where a sickened Mexican tourist had stayed, trapping 350 guests and employees inside.

About a half dozen police officers wearing masks guarded the hotel Sunday, even though all those at the hotel were reported to be healthy. One guest said he walked on the stairs for exercise and to alleviate boredom.

“It’s highly inconvenient. That’s what’s affecting people, because it took us by surprise,” said 45-year-old Kevin Ireland, who was on a business trip from New Delhi, India.

Scientists warn that the virus could mutate into a deadlier form.

“Influenza is unpredictable,” said Dr. Tim Uyeki, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who has worked on SARS and H5N1 bird flu outbreaks. “There are so many unanswered questions. This is a brand new virus. There’s so much we don’t know about the human infectious with this virus.”

Right now, one of the biggest hurdles is a lack of information from Mexico. A team of international and Mexican virus sleuths is trying to piece together an epidemiological picture of who’s dying and where transmission began, while also uncovering just how it’s attacking people with severe illness. But details are emerging slowly.

President Barack Obama urged caution.

“This is a new strain of the flu virus, and because we haven’t developed an immunity to it, it has more potential to cause us harm,” Obama said. Later, he spoke with Mexican President Felipe Calderon to share information.

Cordova said 12 of the dead were between 21 and 40 — unusual ages for people to die of the flu because they tend to have stronger immune systems.

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