Friday, May 1, 2009

Travelers screened at Mexico-U.S. border for flu

Travelers screened at Mexico-U.S. border for flu

* Border crossings unusually quiet

* White-gloved travelers, taco vendors

By Robin Emmott

Go To Original

Mexican doctors in surgical masks screened travelers crossing the border by foot into the United States on Thursday for signs of a new deadly flu strain that has killed up to 176 people.

The doctors and federal health workers were checking for signs of fever or coughing among those crossing border bridges into Texas and California. U.S. Customs agents were also on alert for flu symptoms.

"Yesterday, we stopped a 60-year-old woman from Brownsville with all the symptoms of swine flu and we handed her over to U.S. health authorities," said Mexican health worker Dora Carreon as she reviewed people at a crossing between the Mexican city of Matamoros and Brownsville in south Texas. "We need people to know how serious this is."

"Mexican citizens could be refused entry to the United States if they test positive for swine flu, although we haven't had any cases yet," U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Mike Balero told Reuters from Washington.

Mexico reported late last week that a never-before-seen H1N1 flu virus -- with elements of swine, avian and human varieties -- was spreading rapidly through the country.

In the United States, officials have reported 109 confirmed swine flu infections in 11 states and the only death recorded outside of Mexico -- a Mexican toddler visiting Texas.

Every day, up to a million people cross the U.S.-Mexican border, most of them Mexicans who go to the United States to work, shop or visit relatives.

At the Brownsville border post, like the dozens along the nearly 2,000-mile (3,200-km) U.S.-Mexico border, people crossing by foot and displaying symptoms were isolated, given face masks and tested by doctors on site or taken to hospitals. Car travelers were also checked, but less frequently.

A number of people crossing the border from Tijuana into California, as well as some taco vendors, took their own precautions against infection, wearing white gloves.

Normally congested border crossings from Tijuana on the Pacific to Matamoros were oddly quiet on Thursday, with the flow of people and cars down by about half, Mexican officials and local residents said.

Many have stayed at home since word of the flu outbreak spread last week. President Felipe Calderon asked government offices and private businesses not crucial to the economy to stop work beginning on Friday to avoid more contagion.

Many travelers said they were looking for supplies of anti-bacterial gel in the United States that is now in short supply in Mexican pharmacies.

There was little sign of panic in Brownsville.

"I started wearing a face mask but everyone looked at me as if I was a weirdo, so I took it off again," said Magdalena Gonzalez, who owns a herbal remedies shop in downtown Brownsville.

The World Health Organization said on Thursday it was dropping the "swine flu" designation of the new virus in favor of 'influenza A (H1N1).'

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