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The Truth About Swine Flu

Monday, April 27, 2009

Yet, no one Monday could explain why.

At least two weeks after the first reported death, Mexican authorities still haven’t said exactly where the outbreak began, or how.

“We are in the most intense moment of the epidemic, and the number of cases unfortunately will continue to rise,” Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said. “For that reason, we will take all the preventive measures necessary for its containment.”

But health officials have proved slow to interview and examine family of those who have already fallen ill or died. Citizens are being told to wear surgical masks to prevent contagion — soldiers, police and volunteers have passed out some 6 million in Mexico City alone — even though U.S. health experts say such masks are useless.

Mexican officials first warned the nation of this flu — a new hybrid mixing swine, bird and human varieties into a deadly cocktail — Thursday night, 11 days after its first fatality was reported in southern Oaxaca state.

Spreading in the United States, Canada and Europe, the outbreak that appears to have started in southern Mexico now displays “a significant upward shift in risk for a pandemic,” or global scourge, according to WHO.

The new flu is suspected to have killed at least 149 Mexicans since claiming its first victim April 13, Cordova said. Some 2,000 people have been treated for flu-like symptoms, and the government so far has determined definitively that only 20 of the fatalities were caused by the new flu strain, he said.

Firm says it knew of flu

The spiking level of alarm has fueled criticism among Mexican media and the political opposition that the government acted far too slowly in dealing with the outbreak.

“Nobody believes the government anymore, said Edgar Rocha, a 28-year-old office messenger, told the Associated Press.

When asked why it took so long to identify the outbreak, Cordova told a news conference Monday: “We’ve never had a situation like this in the world. It’s the first time that a swine flu has been detected in humans. … Evidently, no one is a world expert.”

But a Seattle-based risk assessment firm, Veratect, whose clients include corporations and nonprofit organizations that operate internationally as well as some foreign governments, says it noticed something was wrong in late March.

It issued a warning to its clients on April 2 of what it said could be a worrying new flu strain in southern Veracruz state.

Veratect’s chief scientist, James Wilson, said in a posting on his private blog, Biosurveillance, that the company noticed something amiss on March 30, when a lawyer fell seriously ill in Ottawa after returning from Mexico.

Near a pig farm

On April 2, Veratect noted news reports of the Veracruz outbreak and four days later reported that 400 people had come down with acute respiratory problems in La Gloria, a village 150 miles east of Mexico City where a large pig farm is located.

“It was there to look at,” Veratect President Bob Hart said in a telephone interview Monday, adding that the e-mail alerts were sent out to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to the Pan American Health Organization. “We were raising our alert levels on our Web portal.”

Cordova criticized Veratect for not sharing its information with the Mexican government.

He also said the Veracruz outbreak didn’t initially raise alarms because it came toward the end of the country’s normal flu season, and most people examined were infected with a human flu, rather than swine flu, Cordova said Monday.

Later, a 4-year-old boy sickened in that outbreak was confirmed to have the swine flu strain, he said.

Mexican officials say they examined specimens from the first Oaxaca victim, who hasn’t been identified, after the person died.

Once those samples were determined to be of an unknown flu strain, they were sent to U.S. and Canadian experts for further identification.

Many Mexicans seem unwilling to buy such explanations. Some suggested Monday that the government held off announcing the flu virus until after the President Barack Obama’s visit to Mexico City on April 16 and 17 for fear the U.S. leader would cancel his trip.

“They weren’t ready,” said Juan Carlos Izquierdo, a 22-year-old artist, who added that he rarely believes half of what officials say. “Now, they want to act, and we don’t know if it is too late.”

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