MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico will resume normal business activity this week after its swine flu emergency eased, but the global flu alert triggered a trade dispute on Monday over bans on Mexican, U.S. and Canadian pork.
International tensions triggered by the new H1N1 virus, which contains mostly swine components with bits of human and avian influenzas, emerged after about 20 nations banned imports of pork, pigs and other meat from the United States, Canada and Mexico, the three most flu-affected countries.
Mexico, the epicenter of the new flu outbreak which has surfaced in 21 countries, declared it was winning the battle against the flu, which has killed 26 people in the Latin American oil producer nation.
Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova told reporters Monday the government would lift the five-day shutdown it imposed on public and business activities on May 1 after the epidemic swept across the country.
“(We will) resume, as planned, activities in the public and private sector on May 6 with recommendations on matters of health and hygiene at the workplace,” Cordova said.
Most of Mexico’s schools will remain closed until May 11.
As infections of the new H1N1 flu strain continued to appear across the globe, the World Health Organization wavered over whether it might declare a full pandemic alert.
Canada threatened to take China to the World Trade Organization unless Beijing backed down from its ban on imports of pigs and pork from Alberta province, where a herd of pigs was found to have the H1N1 strain.
While the new H1N1 virus is not foodborne, fears it may spread through animal products have prompted restrictions on live pigs, pork, cattle, poultry, livestock, feed and animal semen from countries with infections.
U.S. hog futures fell Monday and meat packing companies cut pork production this weekend amid the import bans and an apparent slide in retail orders due to the H1N1 flu, which has also caused exports from Canada to tumble.
WHO chief Margaret Chan said the apparent good news from Mexico over the epidemic had to be treated with caution.
“Flu viruses are very unpredictable, very deceptive ... We should not be over-confident,” she said. “One must not give H1N1 the opportunity to mix with other viruses.”
More than 1,000 people in 21 countries have caught what has become known as the swine flu, but U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said WHO does not plan to raise its pandemic alert to the highest level if the current outbreak of the new strain of flu continues as is.
However, epidemic experts warned that while the impact on world health appeared to be relatively mild at present, the fast-mutating flu could come back with a vengeance later.
“The next year it may break out in wild ways,” said Dr. C.J. Peters, a microbiologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and specialist in emerging infectious diseases. “If we don’t pay attention to this outbreak as a bad actor, we could be very, very sorry.”
In the United States, the second biggest focus of infection after Mexico, the new virus has now infected 286 people in 36 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Before issuing a level 6 pandemic alert, WHO would need to see the virus spreading within communities in Europe or Asia.
“We are not there yet ... No one can say right now how the pandemic will evolve, or indeed whether we are going into a pandemic,” Chan told a U.N. General Assembly session.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon has said the outbreak that has sickened 701 people in the country is stabilizing.
Mexico’s peso made its biggest gains in over six months on Monday and stocks jumped as fears eased about the outbreak’s economic impact.
Many Mexicans, chafing after days of isolation at home, are desperate to get back to work after a period of inactivity that has hit family incomes at a time of global recession.
“It’s going to be a disaster if this carries on,” said Martin Velasquez, 28, a construction worker.
In a brewing diplomatic dispute between Mexico and China over the treatment of Mexican citizens caught up in the flu alert, Mexico was sending a plane to retrieve dozens of its nationals quarantined by Chinese authorities.
Mexico accused Beijing of discrimination against Mexicans, but China’s Foreign Ministry rejected the criticism.
Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta, Louise Egan and Michael O'Boyle in Mexico City; Laura MacInnis in Geneva, Patrick Worsnip in New York, Maggie Fox and Andrew Quinn in Washington, Jerry Bieszk and Michael Hirtzer in Chicago; Writing by Pascal Fletcher