Swine flu death toll climbs

Health officials are scrambling this weekend to contain an outbreak of swine flu in Mexico which raises the prospect of a global pandemic.

The latest death toll in Mexico is 81, as of Saturday night, according to Reuters. And more than 1,300 people have been infected.

The World Health Organization says that a new strain of swine flu has killed dozens of people. Hundreds more have taken sick. On Saturday, the director general of WHO, Margaret Chan, told reporters that this new version of swine flu has "pandemic potential."

"The situation is evolving quickly," Chan said. "We do not yet have a complete picture of the epidemiology or the risk, including possible spread beyond the currently affected areas. Nonetheless, in the assessment of WHO this is a serious situation that must be watched very carefully."

Health officials in the U.S. have determined that this is the same version of swine flu--a new arrival that mixes a variety of strains-- that has also afflicted several people in Texas and California. And late Saturday health officials in New York said that eight schoolchildren appear to have swine flu while Kansas confirmed two cases, according to Reuters.

Also on Saturday, the New York Times reports that the Mexican government has announced that it has the authority to isolate patients, inspect their homes and shutter events to help slow the spread of the swine flu. Mexico says that it has 500,000 doses of vaccines available for health workers, but none for the general public. There is abundant evidence that the flu is being spread from person to person.

Particularly alarming for epidemiologists is that the flu appears to be hitting healthy young people the hardest. In some of the worst outbreaks, the healthiest are most vulnerable as their more robust immune systems trigger a cytokine storm that can overwhelm their lungs.

The Los Angeles Times reports that schools in Mexico City have been closed to slow the spread of the virus, which has been linked to several cases in the United States. On Saturday Mexican officials also moved to halt meetings, sporting events and other public gatherings to help slow the advance of the disease.

But U.S. officials say that there is no cause for panic. This version of swine flu is susceptible to existing antivirals which can be used to combat an epidemic. 

"This situation has been developing quickly," acting CDC director Richard Besser tells CNN. "This is something we are worried about."

We will continue to offer periodic updates as the situation develops.

- read the story in Reuters
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- read the report in the New York Times 
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