Colombian president Álvaro Uribe has swine flu

Diagnosis prompts fears for health of Latin American leaders who met Uribe at regional summit last week

President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia has been diagnosed with swine flu, prompting urgent checks into the health of other South American leaders he met at a summit last week.

The Colombian leader has been kept partly secluded in an office at the presidential palace in Bogotá, and has continued working by telephone and internet.

Officials said Uribe was expected to make a full recovery. "This isn't something that has us scared," Diego Palacio, the social protection minister, told a news conference yesterday.

The 57-year-old conservative leader showed symptoms soon after addressing a summit at the Argentine ski resort of Bariloche on Friday. The presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela all attended the regional meeting.

Uribe returned to Colombia. During a public event on Saturday, he was sneezing and had a fever and aching muscle. On Sunday, doctors confirmed the cause was the H1N1 swine flu virus.

Checks were being carried out on the 55 people who flew with him to the summit, including cabinet ministers, and Colombian authorities were using diplomatic channels to urge other South American governments "to adopt the necessary measures", said Uribe's spokesman, César Mauricio Velásquez.

To date, neither the president's travelling companions nor the other heads of state with whom he came into contact have reported symptoms.

Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, said yesterday his own health was fine, and wished his counterpart a speedy recovery. "I regret this and hope there are no repercussions for the president's health, and that nobody else has caught the disease," he said.

The good wishes were a rare break in the war of words between two Andean neighbours who regularly trade insults, not least because the Venezuelan socialist sees Uribe as a supporter of what he calls US imperialism.

The Union of South American Nations summit was called because Chávez and other regional leaders had expressed alarm over Bogotá's plan to expand US access to Colombia's military bases in a pact that has evoked bitter memories of US meddling in the region.

Uribe, in a combative performance, defended the deal with Washington as a means of combating drug traffickers and leftist guerrillas. He said it would not be used to spy on or undermine neighbouring governments.

It was not immediately clear whether he was infected with the virus in Colombia, which has 621 confirmed cases, or picked it up in Argentina, which is in the depths of the southern hemisphere winter and has tens of thousands of suspected cases.

Alberto Cortez, an infectious disease specialist at Colombia's National University, told the Associated Press Uribe could have infected other leaders. The presidents shook hands, spent hours around a table and mingled during the joint photo session.

Uribe is not the first Latin American leader to be infected. Earlier this month, Costa Rica's president, Óscar Arias, was diagnosed and placed under quarantine at his home. The 69-year-old Nobel laureate, who helped end central America's civil wars in the 80s, has recovered.

The World Health Organisation declared a flu pandemic in June, warning that the new strain could infect hundreds of millions of people.

As the northern hemisphere braces itself for a surge in winter flu cases, the good news from the southern hemisphere is that its winter outbreak was less fatal than feared. The virus has not mutated into a harsher strain, allowing most people to recover without treatment.


Rory Carroll, Latin America correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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