Latin America on new A/H1N1 flu alert after Colombian president falls victim

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Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was confirmed on Sunday to have been infected with the A/H1N1 influenza, the second Latin American leader to fall victim to the virus following Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez.

The Colombian authorities said they are contacting other governments in the region since Uribe attended a summit of the Union of the South American Nations last week in the Argentine city of Bariloche where gathered leaders of 12 member countries.

So far none of the government officials of Colombia accompanying Uribe to the summit in Argentina was found infected with the disease.

The government has tightened control at hospitals and health centers to avoid a large-scale outbreak of the flu in Colombia.

Latin American nations sound the alarm again since new deaths from the virus were reported and more cases were confirmed.

Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova on Friday warned that "we predict the number of infections will rise to 1 million this winter," after announcing five new deaths from the virus, bringing the toll to 184.

About 80 to 100 cases were reported daily across Mexico in "a very stable phase," Cordova said. The current number of confirmed cases was 21, 264.

Cordova said authorities have drawn up plans to confront a possible surge in cases in winter, including more school closures in most affected areas.

Brazil has reported 584 deaths caused by the A/H1N1 flu, the highest total in the world. While in terms of the virus' fatality rate, Brazil ranks the seventh.

But a vaccine against the virus, which is still being tested, will not be available until at least mid-October, according to Brazilian health officials.

Nicaragua has reactivated its A/H1N1 emergency plan less than a month after it ended due to a re-outbreak of the influenza pandemic.

President Daniel Ortega decreed on Thursday a return to the sanitary emergency plan, which would last 70 days, and under which necessary actions would be taken to prevent, control and lighten the impact of the pandemic.

On the same day, Panama's health minister warned a second wave of A/H1N1 influenza could increase the number of infected cases in the country.

"One of the world's concerns is not only that the flu will reappear, for we are now in the second wave, but that the virus will change and mutate to become more aggressive or resistant to medicine," Franklin Vergara told an international symposium.

Meanwhile, the president of the Institute of the Americas Jeffrey Davidow, who was also present at the symposium, said it was necessary to deepen international cooperation in checking the spread of the virus on the continent.

Davidow warned against panic, saying government institutions in the Americas will face the sanitary emergency "with responsibility."

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Friday that doctors have detected a severe form of A/H1N1 flu that infects the lungs and could cause severe illness in otherwise healthy young people.

In its latest pandemic update, the WHO said over 2,185 people have died in the ongoing outbreak and over 209,000 patients have been confirmed infected worldwide.

The world health monitor also has predicted that one in three of the world's population may eventually be infected by the virus, which it said is now "the dominant influenza strain in most parts of the world."

Thus making vaccines available soon is critical, it added.

(Xinhua News Agency August 31, 2009)

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