The World Health Organization has raised its pandemic alert level from three to four, as health officials around the world take steps to prevent the spread of the swine flu that has caused at least 149 deaths in Mexico and illnesses in several other countries. Meantime, in Mexico, there are signs the virus that causes the illness is on the move and that government efforts to control it are not sufficient.

Majority of cases in central region

Most of the early cases of swine flu detected in Mexico were in the central part of the country, but there are now cases being reported from one end of the country to the other.  In large border cities like Juarez, where people live crammed together in poor neighborhoods, the flu could take hold quickly.  Health officials are cautioning people to take preventive measures and to seek medical attention if they have severe flu symptoms.  At least two people with such symptoms are being treated in a Juarez hospital, but authorities have yet to determine if these are cases of swine flu.

The governor of the state of Chihuahua, Jose Reyes Baeza says there are no confirmed swine flu cases anywhere in the border state, so far.

He says his state is taking precautions and preparing for any cases that do develop, in coordination with Mexican federal officials.

What measures have been taken?

Mexico has closed its schools, nationwide, until May 6 because of the epidemic and suspended large gatherings, such as sporting events or concerts where the virus could spread from person to person and infect many people all at once.

But many Mexicans complain that health measures have been inadequate.  The widow of one of the first confirmed fatalities says she found out her husband had died of swine flu from news reports.  She says no health officials contacted her and that she cannot afford the anti-viral medicine they recommend people exposed to the virus take.  There have been other reports of people with severe symptoms being turned away from hospitals and there are armed guards in front of some hospitals and clinics to prevent the facilities from being overrun by panic-stricken people.

Disappointment in government response
Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos says the government does not have enough health workers to visit the families of every victim, but he  says there is enough medicine available to treat flu victims.  He says nearly 2,000 people have been hospitalized with respiratory illnesses since mid-April, but that more than half have been released.  He says he does not know how many of those cases were confirmed as swine flu.

Cordova Villalobos says one of the first confirmed cases of the disease was in the state of Veracruz, where a four-year-old boy became ill after visiting an area where local people had been protesting pollution from a large pig farm.  Authorities are now investigating whether pigs at that location or other farms in Mexico might have the disease.  Veterinarians from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome are on their way to Mexico to help investigate.

Travel alert in effect

Some nations have issued warnings to their citizens to avoid unessential travel to Mexico, but the World Health Organization says closing borders or restricting travel would have little effect at this point.  Instead, officials are urging people who are ill to avoid travel and asking those who do travel to take common sense measures such as frequent washing of hands and avoidance of people who show any symptoms of the flu.