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April 26, 2009
Panic hits Mexico as rumors fly in Swine Flu crisis
Mexico has a full blown health crisis on its hands as deaths related to the Swin Flu virus have risen to 81 with more than 1300 cases reported.
As this BBC piece containing reader emails from Mexico shows, rumors that the crisis is even worse than the government is reporting are widespread:
It's pretty hard these days to cook the books on a health crisis - not with the WHO, the US, and Canada in the mix and looking over the Mexican's shoulder. The Chinese consistently tried to downplay first the SARS epidemic and then the Bird Flu scare and were called out on it by the WHO several times.
Plus, you might note that in the first response, the woman wonders about the size of the problem when she reports 2nd hand information that 78 people have died in her sister-in-law's state alone. This is how rumors lead to panic in a situation like this; somebody always hears how bad it is somewhere else and those figures don't match up with the "official" story. This leads to distrust in government and a panic ensues.
There's no doubt the fear is real and that the government response is indicative of a serious outbreak of a new, lethal virus. The question is, if it is being spread by human to human contact and if so, how much has the original virus mutated?
The outbreak in New York City is being treated very seriously by the city's health department but if it is Swine Flu, the bug has apparently mutated and in the process, may have become less lethal.
This New York Times piece by Donald G. McNeil, Jr. reports on the condition of the suspected victims:
If people are dropping dead in Mexico of the disease, how can those infected in the US have only "mild" symptoms?
It could be that the age of the victims differ between the two sites of the outbreak. Flu kills mostly the very old and very young. It overwhelms the immune system before the body's natural defenses can be mustered to fight it.
However, the Times article seems to indicate that the virus killed young, healthy adults - and their own strength apparently contributed to their demise:
In each year's flu season, most deaths are in infants and the aged, but none of the first ones in Mexico were in people over 60 or under 3 years old, a W.H.O. spokeswoman said. When a new virus emerges, deaths may occur in healthy adults who mount the strongest immune reactions. Their own defenses - inflammation and leaking fluid in lung cells - can essentially drown them from inside.
It could also be the same virus but the kids in New York contracted a later, mutated form of the bug. This would be unusual but not unprecedented. The bug mutates so that it can survive. If it is killing its host too quickly before it can set up shop in another host in order to replicate, evolution would favor a mutated form of the virus that didn't kill quite as quickly, thus giving the virus more time to spread and the victim's body more time to fight the disease. People get sick but not as sick as with the earlier strain of the virus. The mortality rate plummets but the pathogen spreads faster.
It appears from the New York Times article that the government - city, state, and federal - is ready for just such an emergency thanks to the Bush Administration's preparedness when the Bird Flu scare emerged a few years ago. Millions of doses of Tamiflu (which appears to work on the Swine Flu virus) are available as are mountains of other supplies:
President Calderone in Mexico has taken extraordinary measures to combat the spread of the virus including canceling most major sporting events, closing movie theaters, shutting schools, and generally preventing people from gathering in large crowds.
We'll see if the press plays this straight or starts to generate scare headlines that will panic people into going to the hospital every time they sneeze. If that occurs, hospitals will be overwhelmed and the really sick people may die because of the delay in treatment.
President Obama may be about to be tested not by the Russians or the North Koreans, but by the smallest of God's creatures - a primitive but deadly form of life that could very well tax our health care system and cause a lot of suffering. We'll see if he's up to the challenge.