Chemists stay open as Mexico closes

Normally May 5 – Cinco de Mayo – is a joyous celebration in Mexico, with much bashing of piñatas and drinking of Margaritas. But this year will be different. Yesterday President Felipe Calderon ordered the nation to spend its holiday weekend at home to prevent the advance of the swine flu epidemic that has gripped the nation.

In a televised address, Calderon ordered all "non-essential" businesses to close their doors from May 1 until May 5, urging worried families to hunker down inside, saying: "there is no safer place to protect yourself from catching swine flu than in your own house."

Mexico is already in a state of disarray, with schools closed across the country until Wednesday. The Roman Catholic Church has cancelled Mass for the first time in 80 years, and major sporting events are being held behind closed doors.

The President said that supermarkets, pharmacies and hospitals would remain open for business, but added: "there will be no government activities - those that are not fundamental for citizens - nor any private-sector activities that are not fundamental to common life."

His speech came amid signs that the outbreak may be stabilising in Mexico, with only a handful of new deaths reported yesterday. A total of 3,000 suspected cases have emerged, while the suspected death count has risen to 176, from just under 150 at the start of the week.

The business curfew could not have come at a worse time for Mexico's economy, which has taken a battering in the past week. The £13-billion-a-year tourist industry has disappeared overnight, while only pharmacies and supermarkets are still trading as usual.

US President Barack Obama yesterday said he was "taking the utmost precautions and preparations" to stop the virus, which killed a small child in Texas on Wednesday, but that the US-Mexico border would remain open. Meanwhile Calderon brushed aside criticism that his administration's initial response to the outbreak was slow, stressing several times that authorities had reacted "immediately".

However his speech came as Reuters reported that the first woman to die from the disease had spent the last eight days of her life going from clinic to clinic in a desperate attempt to find out what was wrong.

Maria Adela Gutierrez, a 39-year-old door-to-door tax inspector in the southern city of Oaxaca, who had contact with up to 300 unsuspecting locals when her illness was at its most virulent, became ill on April 4th, and died on the 13th.

Health officials have still not established where the disease initially began, though attention is focused on a vast, US-owned pig farm near the small town of La Gloria, just over 200 miles east of Mexico City. Locals began falling ill there in large numbers in February, with up to 60 percent of the town's 3,000 residents exhibiting symptoms of a respiratory illness.

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