Fears of a global swine flu pandemic grew with new infections in the United States and Canada on Sunday, and millions of Mexicans stayed indoors to avoid a virus that has killed 103 people.
The death toll from the flu in Mexico has risen to 103 and about 400 people still are in hospitals around the country, Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said late on Sunday.
While the deaths have been limited to Mexico, the flu is spreading with 20 cases in the United States and six in Canada, and possible cases as far afield as Europe, Israel and New Zealand.
There was a glimmer of hope, however, as the majority of the infected patients in Mexico have recovered from the illness, according to the government's figures.
Nervousness about the outbreak knocked the dollar to its lowest level in a month against the yen, as traders in Asia fled into alternative currencies like the yen and the Swiss franc. The Mexican peso also weakened and oil prices fell as the weekend news sunk in.
The United States declared a public health emergency and a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, said she feared there would be deaths in the United States as the new strain of flu spreads.
The Mexican capital, one of the world's biggest cities, slowed to a snail's pace as millions of residents stayed at home, fearing infection. Many who ventured out wore masks and some companies asked employees to work from home on Monday.
This is the first time I've left the house in two days. I had to get some air, said Juan Casiano, a 39-year-old office worker, walking briskly through a city park.
The Roman Catholic faithful listened to mass on the radio rather than go to church, and baptisms and confirmations were canceled. Professional soccer games were played in empty stadiums, bars were closed and cyclists stayed off the road in the normally chaotic city of 20 million people.
Mexico's retail and leisure sector faces a hole in takings as shoppers and diners stay home next week. Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebard said public closures could last 10 days.
Finance Minister Agustin Carstens said the flu's impact would be transitory, but the peso, already weakened by the economic crisis, fell nearly 3 percent in electronic trading on Sunday night as traders reacted to the scale of the crisis.
The World Health Organization has declared the flu a public health emergency of international concern that could become a pandemic, or global outbreak of serious disease.
A pandemic would deal a major blow to a world economy already suffering its worst crisis in decades, and experts say it could cost trillions of dollars.
A 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic killed about 1 million people globally.
U.S. DEATHS EXPECTED
As cases of the flu spread outside Mexico, there were worries that fatalities could surface elsewhere.
I do fear that we will have deaths, the CDC's Dr. Anne Schuchat said. Officials were readying for the flu's possible spread beyond the 20 cases confirmed in the United States.
Eight schoolchildren in New York were confirmed as having caught the swine flu virus, although like other cases reported outside Mexico their illness was relatively mild.
Officials said they would release a quarter of the U.S. stockpile of the antiviral drugs Tamiflu, made by Roche AG, and Relenza, from GlaxoSmithKline. Both have been shown to be effective against the new swine flu.
Flu is characterized by a sudden fever, muscle aches, sore throat and dry cough. Victims of the new strain have also suffered more vomiting and diarrhea than is usual with flu.
Although it is called swine flu there is no evidence any of the cases stemmed from contact with pigs.
Officials could not say why deaths have only occurred in Mexico. I think right now it is really premature to say the disease is different in Mexico from here, Schuchat said.
The outbreak has snowballed into a major headache for Mexico, already grappling with a violent drug war and an economic slowdown. It has become one of the biggest global health scares in years.
Mexico said it has $450,000 available to fight the flu, and the World Bank offered $205 million in loans.
It's very frustrating. If you go out, you get mugged -- or you get some weird virus, complained Cynthia Gonzalez, 32, a sales manager who spent most of the weekend at home.
We wanted to go out but we have a baby so we wanted to be sure it was safe. The doctor said it was OK as long as we're not in enclosed spaces or with infected people.