Flu politics in Mexico

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins, and this is The World. The H1N1 swine flu virus is continuing to spread. That's the word today from WHO chief Margaret Chan.

MARGARET CHAN: As of right now, the WHO has received reports of 1,003 confirmed cases of H1N1 influenza from 20 countries.

MULLINS: Doctor Chan said there are no plans to raise the alert level to phase six -- that would classify the outbreak as a pandemic -- but she did stress the need to keep vigilant.

CHAN: This situation can change, not because we are overestimating or underestimating the situation but simply because influenza viruses are constantly changing in unpredictable manners.

MULLINS: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta briefed reporters on the latest developments this afternoon. Our Health and Science editor David Baron will tell us about that in a few minutes. But first, we go to Mexico. Authorities there say the outbreak may already have peaked. But The World's Lorne Matalon, in Mexico City, reports the politics of swine flu are spreading fast.

LORNE MATALON: Mid-term elections to replace the entire Mexican Congress and governors in several key states take place in July. Already, the government and the opposition appear to be leveraging the flu crisis. The government issues daily reports emphasizing it is in control, that hospitals can accommodate any suspected flu victims. The seven opposition parties are also reacting.

DAVID AGREN: Various campaigns have already started giving away things like masks and hand gel for killing germs, which are in short supply in a lot of places.

MATALON: Political analyst David Agren says opposition party giveaways send a none-too-subtle message.

AGREN: �We're showing leadership now and this is how we'll govern.� So the spin on this has been enormous already. And frankly it doesn't matter what the federal government does, it will be spun.

MATALON: The government's been questioned about how efficient its response to the epidemic was and criticized for a confused communications policy. Last night on radio and television, President Felipe Calderon took questions from citizens. The answers were live, but the questions were submitted in advance. An interviewer asked, �Hadn't the government reacted too slowly?� �On the contrary,� said Calderon. �I believe that we acted categorically in an energetic manner. We acted well.� He said Mexico quickly supplied information to international health authorities and took drastic measures to contain the outbreak, such as shutting down most of the country for five days that began Friday. Critics say it wasn't until half a dozen cases were discovered in the United States that Mexico sent samples to Canadian and US laboratories for testing. But almost a month was lost between the testing and the first deaths here. But Calderon says once the samples proved positive for the H1N1 virus, Mexico acted decisively. Commentators on both the left and the right are critical of the government. Some say the total shutdown of the country is an overreaction. It's severely damaging an already weak economy. Others say Calderon's decree to detain anyone suspected of carrying the virus and permitting police to enter suspected victims' homes is a blatant attempt to consolidate power. Yet others are rallying around the President. Political analyst, Alejandro Shtulmann, says the opposition's criticism is ill advised, at least right now.

ALEJANDRO SHTULMANN: Attacks by opposition politicians is a high-risk strategy that could backfire. Of course, there has been some international criticism, but even that might not be sufficient to harm the President. So it is unlikely that Calderon will be politically harmed by the crisis, because the scapegoat would be the Health Secretary.

MATALON: Last night, Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordoba said the outbreak appears to have peaked. But the head of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta says it's too early to be certain. It's also too early to tell what the political fallout of the epidemic will be on Calderon in this summer's elections. The elections will ultimately dictate how far he can advance his reforms of the courts, police, and the Army. He needs to win a majority in Congress. His party also needs to win governorships in states now in opposition hands. Without those victories, Calderon's proposed reforms will be stymied. For The World, I'm Lorne Matalon, in Mexico City.