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GLOBAL: Swine flu epidemic spreads
More than a third of foreign students studying in Mexico's universities have fled the country as teams of researchers work around the globe on the rapidly spreading virus first known as swine flu but now called the type-A H1N1 virus. China, with the world's biggest population, last week became the latest country to report that a student recently returned from the US was its first confirmed case.

The 30-year-old student known only as Bao, tested positive for the virus. Some 130 passengers who shared flights with Bao were placed in isolation last week. Bao arrived in Beijing after travelling home from America via Tokyo and developed symptoms on a domestic flight from Beijing to Chengdu, in Sichuan. China's only previous confirmed case was a Mexican man who had travelled to Hong Kong.

The virus was first reported in Mexico where most of the country's universities and schools have reopened since a virtual nation-wide shutdown of education institutions on 24 April. So have government offices, restaurants, businesses and hotels in most parts of the country but Mexican authorities were cautious about suggesting the worst could be over.

More than 50 universities in the US cancelled summer schools across the border and ordered their students undertaking courses there to return home. But they have now found America has more confirmed cases of the flu than any other country.

The latest report from the World Health Organization indicates that while the US has more than 4,700 confirmed cases, including four deaths, Mexico has fewer than 3,000 but the country has also experienced 66 deaths. Canada has reported 496 confirmed cases, including one death. Costa Rica has nine confirmed, including one death.

"The case that we are trying to make with our colleagues and institutions in the region is this is not a Mexican phenomenon. It is a North American phenomenon mostly," Francisco Marmolejo, an executive member of the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration, told Inside Higher Ed last week.

Around the world, more than 8,500 people in 36 countries have been infected and 73 deaths recorded as University World News was in production. The WHO last week estimated that up to two billion people could be affected if a pandemic occurs, based on the findings of two independent groups reported in the journals Science and BMC Microbiology.

In the Science article, a team of British, Mexican and Swiss biologists and epidemiologists, headed by Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, reported the virus was continuing to spread, as was to be expected in the early stages of a flu pandemic.

"We propose that the appearance of uncharacteristically large clusters of cases is indicative of increased viral transmissibility and hence of when to issue global alerts and implement stringent control measures," the article states.

The report says the current strain appears to have been fatal in about four in 1,000 cases - or equivalent to a flu outbreak in 1957 - not taking account of improvements in healthcare - although it says the data are still incomplete.

Cuba identified its first case of swine flu in a Mexican student attending a Cuban medical school. The Cuban Health Ministry said a group of medical students from Mexico began arriving on the island to resume their studies three weeks ago, four days before Cuban authorities halted airline flights from Mexico. Fourteen of the students were suffering flu-like symptoms and three were later confirmed with the virus.

In a column posted on the government's website last week, Fidel Castro accused Mexico of failing to disclose the spread of the virus until after US President Barack Obama had visited en route to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad last month.

* See Science Scene: US: First clues to pandemic not medical

geoff.maslen@uw-news.com
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