Mexico: Paralyzed by swine flu

The outbreak of swine flu, which the World Health Organization says could become a global pandemic, has brought everything in Mexico to a standstill.

It’s like “a scene out of a thriller,” said Lydia Cacho in El Universal. The outbreak of swine flu, which the World Health Organization says could become a global pandemic, has paralyzed the nation. Mexico City is relatively empty. A few people walk the desolate streets wearing masks “and looking askance at anyone who coughs or sneezes.” Speakers in airports and malls blare warnings to wash your hands and avoid crowded areas. School has been canceled, as have rock concerts. Major-league soccer games are being played in empty arenas, the fans forced to watch them on TV at home.

Everyone’s plans are in turmoil, said Ivett Rangel and Carmen Gonzalez in Mural. Many Mexicans attend pro-union demonstrations on May 1, but this year the May Day celebrations were canceled. Doctors are telling people not to take any trips unless absolutely necessary. “If you must travel,” says Francisco Suarez, chief of medicine at Valle de Mexico University, “use a mask on both the plane and the bus.” Shell-shaped, white polypropylene masks are more effective, he says, than the more common blue cloth masks. At airports and bus terminals, passengers are being asked to fill out health surveys. Anyone who reports nausea and vomiting, or a fever higher than 102 degrees, is asked not to board.

The trick is to avoid both overreacting and underreacting, said El Universal in an editorial. Some people are panicking, rushing to the pharmacy to buy antiviral drugs with which to dose themselves. They endanger the rest of us, because the prevalence of such medicines in healthy bodies “allows the virus to increase its resistance.” Of course, affecting indifference is just as bad. Some blasé types are still recklessly exposing their children to public transportation and going to parties or clubs, where they’ll be in contact with large groups. “The two extreme attitudes stem from ignorance, which is fed when we act based on information provided to us by friends, neighbors, mass e-mails or other uninformed sources.”

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What else are we supposed to do? asked Denise Maerker, also in El Universal. The government hasn’t told us everything we want to know. For example, the government has not said what the fatality rate is among those who have been sickened. “It is essential to know in order to judge as rationally as possible the danger we face.” Ignorance breeds rumor. Some are pushing the zany theory that “the virus was created by American and German students in a lab at the University of Ohio.” Others say there is a secret Canadian vaccine available only to the rich, and that “the president and his family have already been inoculated.” Still others insist “that thousands of deaths have gone unreported because hospitals are hiding the bodies.” The only way to quash these “outlandish fantasies” is to have regular government updates on a fixed schedule, telling us how many new cases and new deaths have been recorded each day, and what progress has been made on a vaccine.

So far, the authorities’ response has not been impressive, said Margarita Vega in El Norte. Our health system is not computerized. The epidemiologists “are still using paper forms,” so they must transmit their findings from one health jurisdiction to another by fax or telephone. At least eight states have no lab capable of diagnosing swine flu. By the time lab results are sent back to those states, the infected people may have spread the disease all through their villages. The government is now pouring money into the health-care system. But the fix may come “too late for this crisis.”

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