More than 100 suspected cases linked to trip

A middle-aged priest who wears monastic robes and runs New York's biggest Catholic school became the face of America's mounting panic over the spread of swine flu yesterday, after it emerged that hundreds of his pupils could have fallen ill from the disease.

Brother Leonard Conway, the head of St Francis Preparatory School in Queens, spent the day double-checking that cleaning crews had left no desk unwiped and no classroom floor unscrubbed in their efforts to decontaminate the 150-year-old school, which recently sent a small group of students on a Spring Break trip to the Mexican beach resort of Cancun.

Doctors have confirmed that at least 27 pupils, together with one teacher, have contracted the virus in recent days. But hundreds of others are currently confined to beds, many of them wearing surgical masks, after being suspected of having also fallen ill.

St Francis, which has 2,700 students, is currently closed indefinitely. The New York Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden, announced on Tuesday that, "many hundreds of pupils are ill, with symptoms that are most likely swine flu... It is here, and it is spreading."

"We believed that there were probably more than 100 cases of swine flu at the school, and lab tests are confirming what we suspected," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "We are dealing with a single cluster of swine-flu cases."

Worryingly, the virus seems to be affecting students who did not travel to Mexico, suggesting that it is being transferred from person to person. It may even have spread to a nearby school where many St Francis students have siblings, which decided to close its doors after nearly 80 pupils phoned in sick.

The outbreak may have started weeks ago. Reports suggested that long lines of students had appeared outside the school nurse's office shortly after the pupils returned from Cancun. The scale of the outbreak has led to calls for all of the city's schools to be closed down.

Many "survivors" are contributing to public concern by hitting the airwaves. Rachel Mele, a 16-year-old from the school, saw her fever break sufficiently to allow her to speak to the Associated Press on Tuesday, five days after she was rushed to hospital with a temperature of 101F.

"I could barely even catch my breath. I've never felt a pain like that before," she said. "My throat, it was burning, like, it was the worst burning sensation I ever got before. I couldn't even swallow. I couldn't even let up air. I could barely breathe through my mouth."

Health officials say the way the flu has jumped to people who didn't travel confirms fears that the virus will be transmitted from humans to humans, as well as directly from pigs.

"There is definitely the possibility that this virus can establish that kind of community-wide outbreak capacity in multiple countries it's something we're looking for very closely," said Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general of the World Health Organisation.

He added that so-called "community" transmissions are a key test for gauging whether the spread of the virus has reached pandemic proportions.