A Year After, Mexico Still Recovering from Swine Flu

by Thilaka Ravi on  April 23, 2010 at 7:28 AM General Health News
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Swine flu was introduced to the world when tiny Mexican Edgar Hernandez fell sick one year ago and became a worldwide sensation.
 A Year After, Mexico Still Recovering from Swine Flu
A Year After, Mexico Still Recovering from Swine Flu

Journalists and researchers flocked to the then five-year-old's sleepy village in eastern Mexico, near an industrial pig farm, seeking clues about the origin of the mysterious new flu.

Since raising the A(H1N1) alert on April 23, 2009, Mexico has registered more than 72,000 cases, including almost 1,200 deaths out of more than 16,900 worldwide, while officials say new cases are now under control.

The first cases are now known to have appeared several months before Hernandez fell sick and panic spread through Mexico -- in the United States and northern and central Mexico.

But Hernandez and his country are still recovering from the impact of the outbreak, and experts warn that, even if the virus is not as threatening as it first appeared, the worldwide pandemic is not yet over.

Hernandez's poor family has received some aid from local authorities in the past year, including a second-hand vehicle.

But political donations, which even include a statue of Edgar in his village square, have been a mixed blessing, setting the family further apart from their neighbors.

"They say that I'm still sick and that I still have the flu and they all make fun of me. The girls don't bother me as much as the boys do," Hernandez said of his schoolfriends.

The total impact on Mexico, particularly its economy, is not completely clear.

Tourists fled the country's famous beaches and pre-Hispanic ruins last spring, when the key industry was already hard hit by the financial crisis, and reports of deadly drug violence.

Former finance minister Agustin Carstens last year estimated the epidemic would cost the economy around 2.3 billion dollars, or close to 0.3 percent of gross domestic product, while Mexico's economy shrunk 6.5 percent overall in 2009.

The World Bank in November granted Mexico a 491-million-dollar loan for measures to contain the pandemic, and Mexico is still seeking international compensation for damage from the flu alert to its economy.

Health Minster Jose Angel Cordova told AFP the move is not only about money, but also a bid to encourage other countries to react in the same way if and when another pandemic occurs.

"If H5N1 appears in Asia, it's quite likely they won't inform others and will let it spread for fear of economic damage and that would be really serious," Cordova said.

The health minister defended Mexico's sometimes extreme measures to contain the flu, including shutting down parts of the country, ahead of the World Health Organization's declaration of a global pandemic in June 2009.

"It's another lie that (the WHO alert) was exaggerated," Cordova said, also denying the existence of deals between vaccine laboratories and health officials.

Mexico has only vaccinated high risk groups and health workers, after obtaining 30 million vaccines for a population of some 110 million.

Authorities say that their virus testing system has meanwhile improved dramatically.

Federal authorities alone invested some 25 million dollars to make diagnosis available across the country, after Mexico initially had to rely on laboratories in Canada and the United States.

"We grew in an incredible way. That's one of the good things in the middle of the difficult situation of the epidemic," Celia Alpuche, head of the Institute of Epidemiological Diagnosis and Reference (INDRE), told AFP.

"The challenge is to conserve it all, and do it well."

Bottles of antibacterial gel in public places, the occasional face mask, and government reminders to wash your hands and sneeze into your elbows are among the few visible remnants of the flu scare one year on.

"People are generally more aware because they now know what the flu is, which is a great advance," Alpuche said.

With an enormous range of medicines available over the counter, self-diagnosis is still widespread, however, after having increased the scale of the outbreak when many sought medical care too late.

But residents of the isolated village of La Gloria say they now have more regular contact with health officials, while Edgar Hernandez's medical experience has altered his career plans.

"He says he wants to be a doctor so that when many kids are sick like him, he'll look after them," said his mother, Maria Del Carmen Hernandez, with a small smile.

Source: AFP

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