Mexico out of China trade fair amid swine flu flap

May 10, 2009 7:30:22 PM PDT
Mexico's government on Sunday called China's treatment of its citizens unacceptable and said it would not participate in a Shanghai trade fair in a bitter dispute over anti-swine flu measures adopted by the Asian giant. Already angered by China's quarantining of dozens of Mexican travelers, flight cancelations and a ban on its pork imports, Mexican officials said China had withdrawn Mexico's "guest of honor" status at the May 19-21 food fair.

It was part of a wider series of snubs by many nations that has left Mexico - once the epicenter of the swine flu epidemic, but now surpassed in total cases by the United States - feeling unfairly singled out.

"The recently adopted measures by fair organizers and the Chinese government are unacceptable," said a statement from ProMexico, the government's agency that promotes foreign trade. Thirty Mexican companies had planned to participate.

The Mexican protests came as China reported its first suspected case of swine flu on the mainland. Its Health Ministry identified the patient as a 30-year-old student surnamed Bao who returned from studying at a U.S. university.

China has been accused in the past of not acting quickly enough to combat the spread of diseases, especially the 2003 global outbreak of SARS. Chastened by that experience and subsequent threats from avian flu, the government this time acted quickly and strongly in trying to block an outbreak, but some of its measures have been criticized as excessive.

China defended the steps as necessary to keep swine flu out of the world's most populous nation. Mexican officials protested that their citizens were singled out based solely on their nationality, noting dozens were quarantined when they arrived whether or not they had been in contact with sick people or even not been in their homeland during the flu outbreak.

Meanwhile, the number of swine flu-related deaths outside Mexico inched up to five with the U.S. reporting its third fatality and Costa Rica its first, both involving men who also had underlying illnesses.

The number of confirmed cases of the infection in the U.S. has risen to 2,532 in 44 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Sunday.

The U.S. man was not further identified. He began showing symptoms on April 30, and was treated with anti-viral medication. Dr. Gary Goldbaum, Snohomish Health District medical director, said medical officials hadn't been able to isolate any "risk factors" for the man to identify where he might have been exposed.

Mexico had been planning to showcase its pork products at the Shanghai fair, and China's withdrawal of its guest of honor status fed a growing sense of grievance at anti-flu measures aimed at the Latin American nation, especially flight bans, quarantines and trade bans against its pork products.

President Felipe Calderon lashed out last week, saying "some countries and places are taking repressive and discriminatory measures because of ignorance and disinformation."

Many Mexicans wondered why - with the total of U.S. cases at 2,532 and Mexico at 1,626 - countries like Argentina that were quick to prohibit flights from Mexico were not doing the same with U.S. flights.

Argentina "didn't close its airports to flights from the United States, the country with most flu cases," columnist Gerardo Galarza wrote in the newspaper Excelsior on Sunday. He said the difference in spending power between Mexican and U.S. tourists "explains the insult."

Mexico's Foreign Relations Department said over the weekend that it had pressed Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador and Peru to drop restrictions. The snubs from fellow Latin American nations were particularly painful.

"We see it as a tragedy of brother against brother. It surprises me a lot to see Latin American countries behaving this way toward their brothers," the papal nuncio, Monsignor Christophe Pierre, told local media outside Mexico City's Basilica of Guadalupe.

Calderon said last week that Cuba's ban on direct flights from Mexico might endanger his expected trip to the island to mend the two countries' frayed relations. "Given that Cuba has banned flights from Mexico, perhaps I am not going to be able to go," the president told a local television station.

Amid the new international frictions, crews were working up to the last minute disinfecting Mexican schools in preparation for Monday's return to classes by students in most of the country.

The government had hoped to get all children back in class, but six of Mexico's 31 states announced they would delay the reopening of schools for another week amid a rebound in suspected flu cases in some parts of the country.

Nationwide, swine flu has been confirmed in 1,626 people, of whom 48 died. Suspected cases were reported after those numbers were released Saturday, but the government offered no new count on confirmed cases Sunday.

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Associated Press writer Rory Marshall in Seattle contributed to this report.

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