MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - New laboratory data showed fewer people have died in Mexico than first thought from a deadly new influenza strain, a glint of good news for a world rattled by the threat of a flu pandemic.
Mexico cut its suspected death toll from the H1N1 flu to up to 101 from as many as 176, as dozens of test samples came back negative. Fewer patients with severe flu symptoms were also checking into hospitals, suggesting the infection rate of a flu that has spread to Europe and Asia was declining.
South Korea confirmed its first H1N1 case on Saturday, a 51-year-old woman who returned from Mexico in mid-April.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed the outbreak may not be as severe as it looked a few days ago, citing many mild cases that were not immediately noticed.
For Mexicans -- who are spending a second weekend stuck indoors with stores and businesses shuttered across the country and the capital, Mexico City, devoid of its lively restaurants, bars, cinemas and museums -- the data is cheering.
Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova acknowledged the numbers were encouraging but cautioned it was too early to say Mexico had control of a flu that has infected people in 15 countries.
“For now it’s unpredictable,” Cordova said late on Friday, noting epidemics can peak again after an initial spurt in infections drops off.
“We need more days to see how it behaves and whether there is really a sustained decline so we can conclude that it’s going down,” he said.
The new virus is only the third infectious disease experts regard as having pandemic potential in the past 10 years.
It has world health experts racing to work on a vaccine and is wreaking havoc with a travel industry that flies hundreds of thousands of people to and from Mexico each week.
China suspended flights to Mexico after Hong Kong authorities on Friday confirmed a Mexican man who flew via the Chinese mainland was infected with the flu strain.
Police in surgical masks quarantined 200 guests and 100 staff inside a Hong Kong hotel where the 25-year-old Mexican had been staying, saying they would be confined for a week.
“They said everybody needed to go back to their rooms. I don’t want to go to my room because I want to be out,” an Australian man at the hotel told a TV reporter by telephone.
The measures taken by the authorities in Hong Kong underscore the concern there about the new flu. Hong Kong was badly hit by the SARS virus in 2003 and has had many episodes of H5N1 bird flu for more than a decade.
Various European countries have confirmed cases of the virus.
The United States has been hit with 145 cases in 22 states, sending demand shooting up for antiviral medicine and prompting preventative measures such as a Boston University dropping handshakes for graduating students accepting diplomas.
In Panama, police detained an American who ran away from a hospital that was testing him for the swine flu.
Almost all infections outside Mexico have been mild, however, with only a handful needing hospital treatment. The only death in another country has been a Mexican toddler who was taken to the United States before he fell sick.
Mexico has released a confusing batch of flu data in recent days but public hospitals have noted a steady drop in patients turning up with fevers, suggesting the infection rate may be declining as the nation dons face masks and hand gel.
“There are very few deaths worldwide,” said Marcelo Musi, a salesman shopping for vegetables in Mexico City, where residents weary of masks, hand sanitizer and frightening headlines clutched at signs of an end to the crisis.
“If there are no more cases, they say things will get better,” said Musi.
President Felipe Calderon ordered non-essential businesses to close for five days from Friday, extending a three-day holiday weekend over Monday and Tuesday.
Analysts say the move will dent already negative economic growth this year as it pinches businesses, but inspectors will fine or forcibly close companies that defy the order.
Countless families were devastated at having their long weekend ruined. Young couples, children and the elderly were mainly stuck indoors as restaurants, bars, playgrounds and parks that hold outdoor “cumbia” dances all stayed closed.
Cordova said that out of 159 files on suspected flu deaths, tests showed 58 died of other causes. He said 16 deaths are confirmed as caused by the H1N1 flu and 85 are being tested.
Additional reporting by Louise Egan and Anahi Rama and Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong