Mexico Fears Second Outbreak of H1N1 as Cases Climb

Nearly three years after H1N1, so-called swine flu, first struck Mexico, the virus is making a comeback.

In January, Mexico recorded 1,623 cases of the flu, including 1,456 H1N1 cases. There were 1,000 flu cases in Mexico last year, Health Secretary Salomón Chertorivski Woldenberg said earlier this week. Since the year’s start, 29 people have died of H1N1. Only 35 people died from various flu strains all last year.

Yet, the number of  H1N1 cases is not unexpected. The Associated Press reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) “say that H1N1 cases this year are within the normal range.”

Relative to 2009, when H1N1 caused worldwide panic, particularly in Mexico City where schools, museums, cinemas and restaurants were shuttered, the country is also more prepared to fight the illness, said Pablo Kuri-Morales, another official with Mexico’s Health Ministry.

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“First, we know what the virus is,” he said, “second, we have the vaccine, of which 70 million doses were applied three years ago. Third, we know there’s a medicine that’s effective.”

Residents here remember wearing masks and surgical gloves on public transportation, and keeping their kids home. The flu particularly hurt the economy, keeping away clients and generally slowing the capital. Employees lost work days and pay.

“Yeah it was really heavy,” said Jorge Acosta, who runs a shoe repair stand near Chapultepec Park. He lost 70 to 80 percent of his usual income during the swine flu’s height.

“I was working that entire time,” he added.

When H1N1 deaths appeared in the news late January, Mexicans took notice. But looking back on 2009’s response, they’re less anxious.

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“They told us it was an epidemic – that we were going to drop like flies,” said Acosta, “we believed that. Then nothing happened.”

Most Mexicans remember the fear, rather than the illness. By mid-2010, the country had only reported 1,300 swine flu deaths. Many people nowadays don’t know anyone affected.

Consequently, conspiracy theories have arisen. Like the one about the government inventing the swine flu.

Santos Mariano Ramírez López, who works for milk company Leche Alpura, said the government used H1N1 to distract Mexicans from pursuing justice.

“It’s to lie to us so we don’t continue fighting, or saying ‘what’s happening with our salaries?’ – if they’re going to raise our salaries or not,” he said.

For those willing to believe officials, swine flu cases will increase in February and March. That’s the normal cycle of this flu, said Kuri-Morales.

Thus far, the health and education secretaries have not recommended school closures. Free vaccines are available in the nation’s public health institutes between mid-October until late winter, said Kuri-Morales. In Mexico City, vaccination stands are set up in Metro stations.

There’s also common sense protection.

Epidemiologist Dr. Richard P. Wenzel, of Virginia Commonwealth University, visited Mexican swine flu patients in 2009. Hand-washing and less touching prevent infection, he said.

“Stop handshaking. It’s a time-honored tradition, but it’s better to hug," he said. "And Mexicans like to hug anyway,” he said.

Ruth Samuelson is a freelance writer based in Mexico City.

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