Late alert? Mexico denies slow reaction to flu epidemic

April 29th, 2009 - 12:18 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama By Andrea Sosa Cabrios
Mexico City, April 29 (DPA) Every year as winter approaches, Mexico launches vaccination campaigns against seasonal influenza. The time to watch out is October-February, when the weather is at its coldest.

But something strange happened this year.

There continued to be cases of flu in March, and in April too. First people thought that these were the remains of seasonal flu, until a woman died April 13 in the state of Oaxaca, with atypical symptoms.

Samples were taken from her and others and sent to a laboratory in Canada. The answer came back April 23: the sample tested positive for a new, unknown virus, a mutation of the A/H1N1 of swine fever, which is transmitted from person to person without need for contact with pigs or the consumption of pork meat.

That same night, schools were suspended in Mexico City and the adjoining state of Mexico - which hold over 20 percent of the country’s 105 million people - and measures were taken to prevent the virus’ spread.

By then there were 61 flu deaths, with 16 confirmed swine flu deaths.

Did the authorities fail to act swiftly enough?

Mexico insists that they acted with due speed, that they were facing a virus that was unknown in the world and that they barely saw striking evidence. They carried out all the tests they could in the country’s laboratories, and then sent samples on to Canada and the US for a more precise identification of the virus.

The only country that has so far openly accused Mexico of having been too slow is Brazil.

“In such cases as these there cannot be such a delay in notification. Brazil is in the habit of not hiding serious public health cases,” said Agenor Alvares, general director of Brazil’s public Agency for Health Surveillance (Anvisa).

“They have been having cases since March, and we only found out Friday,” Alvares complained.

The US has avoided any accusations of this sort. US President Barack Obama visited Mexico April 16, but the White House insists that he was never exposed to the virus.

“In terms of detection and reporting, you know, the confirmation of swine flu from Mexico was shared with us immediately,” said Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In truth, nobody knows yet where the virus - which some are already calling Mexican flu or North American flu - started. The first case was detected in the US state of California.

Were there earlier cases in Mexico that went undetected? Who passed it on to whom? The World Health Organisation (WHO) was working to identify the origin of the disease.

“Mexican authorities have acted most properly, even going beyond international requirements,” Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos said late Monday.

“The first case that made us suspect that it was a variant that did not correspond to seasonal influenza was the case in Oaxaca. There, we carried out the histo-pathological test and we suspected that it was a coronavirus, which is not the same virus in (seasonal) influenza,” he explained.

“And later the other cases that we started to discover strengthened that suspicion and led us to send the samples of the A/H1N1 (virus for testing), which was as far as we were in a position to diagnose ourselves,” Cordova Villalobos added.

The virus remains an unknown for scientists. In Mexico, 152 people have died of a flu, but it was still unknown Tuesday how many of these had died of the mutation of the A/H1N1 virus and how many had died of common type A influenza.

Other swine flu cases have been detected around the world: 64 in the US, 10 in New Zealand, six in Canada, two in Scotland, two in Spain, two in Israel and one in Costa Rica.

Many of the people infected were people who had travelled to Mexico. But none of them are dead: only Mexicans are dying, and they are mostly aged 20-50.

Many unknowns continue to surround the epidemic. There are no precise data of the profiles of the dead. For several days, the figure of 20 dead of swine flu in Mexico has been kept constant, while the WHO is still talking of 29 cases, including seven deaths, from the new virus.

Mexico has cancelled all mass events. Face-masks have run out in many pharmacies and shops in Mexico City. The army and the authorities are handing them out for free. But some people wear them, others ignore them and others wear them as a sort of necklace, more as a psychological tool against the disease than as real protection against the virus.

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