April 29, 2009 / 7:04 PM / 11 years ago

Mexico visitors head for home as flu fears spread

(For full coverage of the flu outbreak, click [nFLU])

* Tourists, foreign students cutting trips short

* US recommends halting non-essential travel to Mexico

* Argentina, Cuba have suspended Mexico flights

By Helen Popper and Mica Rosenberg

MEXICO CITY, April 29 (Reuters) - Tourists and foreign students hurried to leave Mexico on Wednesday because of fears of swine flu and worries that flights would be canceled after news the virus claimed its first fatal victim outside Mexico.

Thousands of travelers come to Mexico each year to visit beaches, ancient pyramids and quaint colonial towns but on Wednesday many were in the airport trying to change their tickets.

"We didn’t want to get stuck here," said Alex Grinter, who left her beach vacation in the southern state of Oaxaca to get an early flight back to Australia.

Kyra Bornemann, 20, from Germany, cut short a four month trip to do volunteer work. "I decided yesterday to fly today because I was worried the flight might be canceled," she said.

Up to 159 people are believed to have died in Mexico from the flu, a virus that passes from human to human and has spread to more than 20 countries. Many suspected cases in other parts of the world are in people who made trips to Mexico.

Wednesday’s announcement that a 22-month-old Mexican boy had died in a Texas hospital was the first time a fatality had been recorded outside Mexico, but the World Health Organization cited clear signs the outbreak was spreading around the world.

Argentina and Cuba have halted flights from Mexico and the United States has advised against nonessential visits to its southern neighbor.

Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL.N) said it canceled Mexico stops for three of its cruise ships due to the swine flu alert and Canadian tour operator Transat AT TRZb.TO said it was postponing its flights to Mexico until June 1.

Other Canadian airlines WestJet Airlines Ltd WJA.TO and Air Canada ACa.TO said they were temporarily suspending all operations to popular resorts like Cancun, Cozumel and Puerto Vallarta.


Several American airlines said earlier this week they would allow passengers to any city in Mexico to change their plans without any fee or penalty.

In Mexico City, a sprawling metropolis of 20 million, all schools, restaurants, nightclubs and public events have been shut down to try to stop the sickness spreading. Many foreign students studying in Mexico went home as universities closed down.

"It’s such a shame because all people heard before about Mexico was the drug war and now its swine flu," said Randal Sheppard, a 27-year-old Australian who is writing his dissertation on Mexican history.

"It’s a bit disappointing but nothing is open anyway, including the university so I haven’t been able to do any work," he said.

Police and airport officials have been advising any passengers with symptoms typical of swine flu — persistent coughing, vomiting, fever — not to board flights and go immediately to the doctor.

Germs can circulate in plane cabins, although most planes are equipped with advanced filtration systems. WHO says that people who fly for more than eight hours in close proximity to someone with an infectious disease — a few seats or rows — can risk getting infected. (Editing by David Storey)

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