Epidemic spreads

MEXICO CITY -- The swine flu epidemic spread deeper into the United States, Europe and Latin America even as Mexico's health chief hinted Sunday that it might soon be time to reopen businesses and schools in the nation where the outbreak probably began.

The virus spread to Colombia in the first confirmed case in South America, worrisome because flu season is about to begin in the Southern Hemisphere. More cases were confirmed in Europe and North America; health officials said at least 1,000 people have been sickened worldwide.

Dr. Richard Besser, acting chief of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said swine flu is spreading just as easily as regular winter flu.

"The good news is when we look at this virus right now, we're not seeing some of the things in the virus that have been associated in the past with more severe flu," Besser said. "That's encouraging, but it doesn't mean we're out of the woods yet."

Health officials raised the number of confirmed U.S. cases to 245 in 35 states. The new number, up from 160 on Saturday, reflects streamlining in federal procedures and the results of tests by states, which only recently have begun confirming cases, said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC.

Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said late Sunday that the virus has killed 22 people in Mexico, raising the toll from 19. The last confirmed death occurred last Wednesday, he said.

Cordova added that the virus had sickened at least 568 people and appeared to have peaked in Mexico between April 23 and April 28. A nationwide shutdown appears to have helped prevent the outbreak from becoming more serious, he said.

"The evolution of the epidemic is now in its declining phase," Cordova said.

He said officials would decide today whether to extend the shutdown or allow schools and businesses to reopen Wednesday.

Pablo Kuri, an epidemiologist advising Cordova, said tests have confirmed a swine flu death in Mexico City on April 11, two days earlier than what had been thought to be the first death.

Kuri said there have been no deaths among health care workers treating swine flu patients in Mexico, an indication that the virus might not be as contagious or virulent as initially feared.

The United States said it had sent 100,000 protection kits worth $1 million to Mexico for use by first responders. The kits include respiratory masks, protective goggles and overalls. In all, the United States has sent $16 million in aid to Mexico since the emergency began, the U.S. Embassy said.

Fear spread in other parts of the globe, much of it directed at Mexican nationals or those who have traveled to Mexico.

China quarantined more than 70 Mexican travelers in hospitals and hotels, and Mexicans on arriving flights were being taken into isolation, said Mexico's ambassador, Jorge Guajardo.

Hong Kong isolated 350 people in a hotel after a Mexican traveler there was determined to have the swine flu.

In his TV interview, Mexican President Felipe Calderon complained about such treatment.

"I think it's unfair that because we have been honest and transparent with the world, some countries and places are taking repressive and discriminatory measures because of ignorance and disinformation," Calderon said.

He did not single out any nation. But an official in the Foreign Relations Department said afterward that Mexico was sending a chartered jetliner today for any citizens who wanted to leave China.

China's Foreign Ministry denied it was discriminating against Mexicans.