(For full coverage of the flu outbreak, click [nFLU]
* Mexican president asks citizens to stay home from May 1-5
* WHO says flu pandemic imminent
* Mexico says has 17 more suspected deaths
* Mexican toddler is first fatality in the U.S.
By Catherine Bremer and Laura MacInnis
MEXICO CITY/GENEVA, April 30 (Reuters) - Mexico's president told citizens to stay home from Friday for a five-day partial shutdown of the economy, after the World Health Organisation raised its alert level and said a swine flu pandemic was imminent.
In his first televised address since the crisis erupted last week, President Felipe Calderon told Mexicans to stay home with their families. The country will suspend non-essential work and services, including some government ministries, from May 1-5.
"There is no safer place than your own home to avoid being infected with the flu virus," Calderon said.
Mexico reported another 17 deaths potentially linked to swine flu, bringing the total to as many as 176. Ten countries have reported cases of the H1N1 strain, and Texas officials said a 22-month-old boy had died while on a family visit from Mexico, the first confirmed swine flu death outside Mexico.
"Influenza pandemics must be taken seriously precisely because of their capacity to spread rapidly to every country in the world," WHO Director General Margaret Chan told a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday as she raised the official alert level to phase 5, the last step before a pandemic.
"The biggest question is this: how severe will the pandemic be, especially now at the start," Chan said. But she added that the world "is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history."
In Mexico City, a metropolis of 20 million, all schools, restaurants, nightclubs and public events have been shut down to try to stop the disease from spreading, bringing normal life to a virtual standstill.
Nearly a week after the H1N1 swine flu virus first emerged in California and Texas and was found to have caused dozens of deaths in Mexico, Spain reported the first case in Europe of swine flu in a person who had not been to Mexico, illustrating the danger of person-to-person transmission.
Both U.S. and European officials have said they expect to see swine flu deaths.
NO U.S. BORDER CLOSURE
President Barack Obama said during an evening news conference at the White House on Wednesday there was no need for panic and rejected the possibility of closing the border with Mexico.
"At this point, (health officials) have not recommended a border closing," he said. "From their perspective, it would be akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out, because we already have cases here in the United States."
Obama also praised his predecessor for stockpiling anti-viral medication in anticipation of such an outbreak.
"I think the Bush administration did a good job of creating the infrastructure so that we can respond," Obama said. "For example, we've got 50 million courses of anti-viral drugs in the event that they're needed."
Despite worries that a major flu outbreak could hit the struggling global economy, world stocks rallied on Wednesday after the Federal Reserve said the U.S. recession appeared to be easing. Asian stocks extended the gains on Thursday.
Almost all cases outside Mexico have had mild symptoms, and only a handful have required hospitalization.
Masato Tashiro, head of the influenza virus research centre at Japan's National Institute of Infectious Disease and a member of the WHO emergency committee, told Japan's Nikkei newspaper it appeared the H1N1 strain was far less dangerous than avian flu.
"The virus is relatively weak and about the same as regular influenza viruses passed on via human-to-human contact. I don't believe it will become virulent," he was quoted as saying.
"The threat to health from the avian influenza and its fatality rate is much greater than the new flu," he said.
"I am very worried that we will use up the stockpile of anti-flu medicine and be unarmed before we need to fight against the avian influenza. The greatest threat to mankind remains the H5N1 avian influenza."
Chan urged companies who make the drugs to ramp up production. Two antiviral drugs -- Relenza, made by GlaxoSmithKline
and Tamiflu, made by Roche AG
and Gilead Sciences Inc
-- have been shown to work against the H1N1 strain.
Mexico's central bank warned the outbreak could deepen the nation's recession, hurting an economy that already shrank by as much as 8 percent from the previous year in the first quarter.
France said it would seek a European Union ban on flights to Mexico. The EU, the United States and Canada have advised against non-essential travel to Mexico, and many tourists were hurrying to leave, crowding airports.