* Mexico death toll 149; WHO raises alert level
* New Zealand and Israel confirm cases of swine flu
* Financial markets falter again on fears of pandemic
* Some companies restricting staff travel
(For full coverage of the flu outbreak, click [nFLU])
By Catherine Bremer
MEXICO CITY, April 28 New Zealand and Israel
confirmed cases of swine flu on Tuesday, the latest countries
hit by a new strain that has killed up to 149 people in Mexico
and which threatens to become a pandemic.
The World Health Organisation has raised its alert level to
phase 4, indicating a significantly increased risk of pandemic.
Global markets tumbled for a second day on Tuesday on fears the
outbreak could snuff out fragile signs of economic recovery.
No one has died outside Mexico but more than 50 infected
people have been found in the United States, six in Canada and
two each across the Atlantic in Spain and Scotland. Possible
cases were being tested as far away as South Korea and
New Zealand's health ministry said three of 11 people in a
school group that recently visited Mexico had tested positive,
and it expected the other eight would also turn out to be
positive when tests were completed. The Israeli carrier, a
26-year-old man, had also recently returned from Mexico.
"His condition is good but he is being kept hospitalised
for observation," said health ministry spokeswoman Einav
One of the mysteries of the current outbreak is why all
cases outside Mexico have so far been relatively mild.
The WHO said the flu was being spread by human-to-human
transmission, but did not advise stringent travel curbs.
"The WHO does not recommend any travel restrictions or
border closures," spokesman Gregory Hartl said in Geneva.
Asian and European stock markets <0#.INDEXA> retreated,
with airline stocks taking another hit and drug makers posting
gains. The yen climbed to a seven-week high against the euro
EURJPY= and a one-month high versus the dollar JPY= as
investors cut their exposure to riskier currencies.
Oil dropped 2 percent, sinking below $50 a barrel CLc1.
Britain, France, Germany and the United States issued
travel alerts for Mexico, which relies on tourism as its No. 3
source of foreign currency. Japan advised its citizens in
Mexico to consider returning home soon, saying they might find
themselves unable to leave and not be able to get adequate
China promised to disclose any cases promptly. State-run
newspapers urged officials to be open and avoid the kind of
cover-up that brought panic during the SARS epidemic in 2003.
Asian companies stepped up their precautions, restricting
travel and advising staff on how to protect themselves against
the virus, but stopping short of implementing stringent
"We're limiting all non-essential travel to places that
have seen cases of swine flu, and staff members returning from
those areas will be quarantined for a period of time before
being allowed to enter our factories and facilities," said
Edmund Ding, a spokesman at Taiwanese electronics parts firm
Hon Hai (2317.TW), which has several factories in Mexico.
"If any government calls for factories to be closed to stop
the spread of the infection, we will of course comply with
Experts say that while it is impossible to stop the spread
of the disease, efforts to slow its progression around the
world could buy crucial time for countries to procure essential
Yuen Kwok-yung, a leading microbiologist at the University
of Hong Kong, said the key things to slow the disease were
"border control and hygiene".
The last flu pandemic, a Hong Kong flu outbreak in 1968,
killed about one million people around the world.
MEXICO HUNKERS DOWN
In Mexico, epicentre of the latest outbreak, people from
company directors to couriers on tricycles wore face masks
while airlines checked passengers for flu symptoms.
"We will defeat this threat," Mexico City Mayor Marcelo
Ebrard vowed late on Monday as several hundred people suspected
to be suffering from the flu were treated in hospitals and life
in the normally hectic capital took on an eerie hush.
Mexico City shut restaurants, bars, cinemas, stadiums, gyms
and some government offices to stop the infection from
Unsure how worried they should be, people stocked up on
food, drinking water, rental movies and surgical masks. Some
opted to work from home. Schools were closed until May 6.
Facing damage to tourism and trade -- key motors of an
economy that is already tipping into recession from the global
downturn -- Mexico said it would not order a mass closure of
businesses to try to contain the infection.
"Economic activity must continue," Labor Minister Javier
Lozano told a news conference on Monday evening.
Worldwide, seasonal flu kills between 250,000 and 500,000
people in an average year. The new strain is worrying as it
spreads rapidly between humans and there is no vaccine for it.
Most of the fatalities have been people aged between 20 and
50, an ominous sign because a hallmark of past pandemics has
been the high rate of fatalities among young adults.
Mexican media have speculated the flu may have originated
at a pig farm in the tropical southeastern state of Veracruz.
But Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said the first case
that alerted authorities to a possible rogue flu strain was in
the southern state of Oaxaca. He said it was too early to
identify the cause or geographical source of the virus.
Officials say the virus is not caught from eating pig meat
products but several countries banned U.S. pork imports.
The heavy volume of visitors to Mexico only underscores the
risk of contagion. Airlines fly more than 1 million passenger
seats in and out of Mexico's international airport each week.