TOPICS > Health

Swine Flu’s Spread Prompts New Restrictions in Mexico

April 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the cases of swine flu in the U.S. and abroad continue to mount, Mexico's Ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, discusses efforts to contain the illness and defends how the Mexican government initially responded to the outbreak.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We start with the swine flu story. The numbers climbed again today. There were more than 150 dead in Mexico, and at least 64 cases confirmed in the U.S., with scores more suspected.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage of the flu story.

KWAME HOLMAN: The day brought major developments on both coasts. In New York City, with the most reported cases, officials said hundreds of children now are ill at a school where swine flu was found.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, mayor of New York City: It is very possible that this will spread further and that your child will get it, like every year. It’s exactly the same thing. This goes through the population.

And that’s why Tom thinks that it’s very likely that there are other places around the country with lots of cases they just don’t recognize or why this is not — this could easily spread through the city.

The great unknown is how many generations you can pass it through from one to another. Does it fizzle out quickly? Or does it go on for a long time? And it’s just much too early to know that.

KWAME HOLMAN: And across the country, California declared a state of emergency, with more than a dozen cases confirmed. The action makes it easier to purchase equipment and materiel to combat the virus.

OFFICIAL: You’ve got to pass that hand sanitizer around.

KWAME HOLMAN: Los Angeles County officials also were investigating two deaths, but ruled out the flu in one of them.

In Washington, President Obama asked Congress for an additional $1.5 billion to combat the swine flu.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: This is about prudent planning, moving forward to ensure, as I said, that there are funding that can help defray costs for moving infrastructure around the country, to ensure that we have the resources, if needed, to produce additional antiviral drugs, to ramp up the production of a vaccine, and just to ensure that we have the resources that are necessary at a state, local and federal level.

KWAME HOLMAN: To date, however, the cases of swine flu in the U.S. have been less severe than those found in Mexico.

The acting head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Richard Besser, said there were several factors.

DR. RICHARD BESSER, acting director, Centers for Disease Control: You’ll look at the immune status of individuals. You’ll look at the age. You’ll look at the gender and see if there’s anything there that can shed some light.

KWAME HOLMAN: Besser also reported several Americans now are hospitalized, and he predicted there will be deaths in the U.S. before it’s all over.

That puts a premium on finding a vaccine. At a Senate hearing, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases warned it will take some time.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: The virus, as was mentioned, has been isolated and characterized by the CDC. Over a period of anywhere from four to six months or so, you may be able to start getting off the assembly a number of doses so that we might have it ready for people several months from now.

Swine flu reported in new locations

Dr. Keiji Fukuda
World Health Organization
The worst pandemic of the 20th century occurred close to the beginning of that century in 1918. And it also started out as a relatively mild pandemic or, really, relatively mild spread of illness that wasn't very much noticed in most places.

KWAME HOLMAN: The economic fallout from the flu also has begun to come into focus. Cuba today became the first nation to impose a travel ban on flights to and from Mexico.

Several nations have tried tightening surveillance at airports and other entry points, but health officials now say such measures are unlikely to contain swine flu, since travelers could be infected yet show no symptoms.

In fact, swine flu cases were reported in two new locations today, one of them New Zealand.

TONY RYALL, health minister, New Zealand: New Zealand can unfortunately confirm that students recently returned from Mexico have tested positive for swine flu.

KWAME HOLMAN: The other new case was in Israel, also in a traveler returning from Mexico, the outbreak's epicenter.

And several nations have banned pork imports from Mexico and parts of the U.S., despite appeals from farmers and experts that there is nothing to fear from well-tended animals.

AMY WILKERSON, farmer: Yes, we're going to take one day at a time, making sure we've got all of our safeguards in place, and we'll still eat pork chops tonight for supper.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Mexican government came under increasing pressure domestically today. Investigators focused on a hog farm in Veracruz as the possible breeding ground for the first case of the swine flu in the country.

Schools, theaters, and other public gathering places in Mexico City remained closed, and restaurants limited their service to takeout.

Worshippers prayed to St. Judas Thaddeus, the patron saint of lost causes.

JUANITA BENITEZ (through translator): We hope that this epidemic which we have here ends so that we are all OK. With God's and St. Judas' help, all will end well, and we'll all be OK.

KWAME HOLMAN: Many Mexicans stood in long lines outside hospitals in the country's capital, but some complained that only those with enough money could get adequate treatment.

In Geneva, Dr. Keiji Fukuda of the World Health Organization said a pandemic, a global sustained outbreak, is possible, but not inevitable.

DR. KEIJI FUKUDA, World Health Organization: But I do want to provide a cautionary note. The worst pandemic of the 20th century occurred close to the beginning of that century in 1918. And it also started out as a relatively mild pandemic or, really, relatively mild spread of illness that wasn't very much noticed in most places.

KWAME HOLMAN: By some estimates, that pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide.

Fukuda said his agency is focusing on the under-resourced countries of the developing world, where lack of preparation and treatment could lead to widespread illness.

Slow down in rate of infection

Arturo Sarukhan
Mexican Ambassador to the United States
We're still trying to ascertain where this could have originated. It is not clear that it originated in Mexico. We're trying to determine this with Canadian and U.S. medical and health facilities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ray Suarez has more on the Mexico story.

RAY SUAREZ: And for that, we go to Mexico's ambassador to Washington, Arturo Sarukhan.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome.

ARTURO SARUKHAN, Mexican Ambassador to the United States: Thank you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Are you getting new cases, either suspected or confirmed, at the same rate as you were in the last several days?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: No. Given the information that we're getting from Mexico City and that the health ministry is reporting, there seems to be a slowing down both in the rate of infection and both -- and also in the rate of deaths related to the virus. So there seems to be a leveling off, but I think the next 24, 36 hours will be critical to determine whether this trend is sustainable.

RAY SUAREZ: What about geographic spread? Have there been outbreaks in all the Mexican states? Or are there some parts of the country that are more heavily affected?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: No. So far, there are 12 states in Mexico where we've seen outbreaks. It is heavily concentrated, though, in Mexico City and in the larger metropolitan area of Mexico City, for obvious reasons, of concentration of population.

RAY SUAREZ: Suspicion is now turning to the state of Veracruz, where there are some very large factory farms producing hogs. Are you getting some assistance in -- in tracking it down, in inspecting these farms, from international agencies? Or so far, is Mexico trying to do it on its own?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: First of all, we're still trying to ascertain where this could have originated. It is not clear that it originated in Mexico. We're trying to determine this with Canadian and U.S. medical and health facilities.

There's a very important story that has to be put on the table, Ray, which is that Mexico, Canada, and the United States back in 2005 understood the challenges of some of these diseases, global diseases.

And since then, we worked together to ensure that we had the protocols, the exchange mechanisms, the cooperation mechanisms to be able to tackle these issues. So there are members of CDC working actively in Mexico with health ministry officials to try and pinpoint where it could have started and the rhythms and methods of contagion.

RAY SUAREZ: Have you been able to determine that the people who've been identified so far as having died from this flu, in fact, died of it? Have you been able to analyze blood samples quickly enough? Have you been able to analyze -- do post-mortem examinations quickly enough to know whether, in fact, somebody has actually died of this outbreak?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: From the moment that the Mexican government identified that we were dealing with a new strain of influenza virus, the Mexican government has moved very quickly and very effectively to determine and pinpoint what's going on.

Of the 140-plus deaths that have been registered in Mexico, so far the latest number that I saw is that 22 are directly related to the specific strain of influenza virus.

RAY SUAREZ: But so far, if someone has something that looks like it, you're going to work on the -- on the assumption...

ARTURO SARUKHAN: We are going to work on the assumption that it has to be contained and it has to be treated effectively and quickly.

Criticism of government response

Arturo Sarukhan
Mexican Ambassador to the United States
One of the things that we've done very quickly to prevent a larger spreading of the virus is to try and curtail social activity.

RAY SUAREZ: There's already starting to be some criticism about the speed of the government response. Some of the earliest cases at the beginning of April, the government, it said, didn't move quickly enough to notify Mexicans that there was a problem, that perhaps they could limit contacts, that the people around those who were affected early needed to be treated with prophylactic drugs. What's your response?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: The Mexican government responded very aggressively, very actively, and very transparently the moment we determined that we were dealing with a new strain of virus.

Remember that, when we registered some of the first cases at the beginning of April, we were at the end of the flu season in Mexico in general, so there may have been at the beginning a bit of confusion whether this was something new or it was part of a general pattern of flu that we have seasonally in Mexico.

The moment we identified that we were dealing with a different strain, a week ago, the Mexican government immediately notified Mexican public opinion, immediately took steps to try and contain it by suspending schools, by suspending soccer matches over the weekend.

It has very aggressively and very transparently moved to tell Mexican citizens what is going on and to try and ensure that we can contain and then treat those who have fallen ill.

RAY SUAREZ: With each new day, as you mentioned, new restrictions come up, the closure of restaurants, the closure of movie theaters, the discouraging of large crowds. How do you strike that balance between the needs of such a large country as yours of people to get around and do business and do their lives and the need to contain the spread of this disease?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: One of the most effective instruments that we have, that public health officials worldwide have to contain these types of diseases is to very quickly try and mitigate and isolate the factors that allow the virus to propagate, and that is social gatherings.

So one of the things that we've done very quickly to prevent a larger spreading of the virus is to try and curtail social activity.

But number two, I think, the paramount consideration for the Mexican government is to ensure the well-being and the health of its citizens. And if this entails that there will have to be some curtailing of activities that are normal to the life of a 20 million city like Mexico City, it has to be done, because paramount is the health of our citizens.

RAY SUAREZ: Let's talk about the economic impact. Mexico already was feeling the downstream effects of the American economic downturn. Add to that tourism problems that had to do with the adverse publicity coming from the drug wars. Put this on top of it, canceled weddings, people canceling their flights, hotel reservations. This could end up costing your country a lot of money, no?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: Certainly, but more important is the health and well-being of our citizens and our ability to work with other international partners, with the World Health Organization, to ensure that we can control and shut down the propagation of the virus. That is our priority.

International aid pours into Mexico

Arturo Sarukhan
Mexican Ambassador to the United States
Common sense and the medical data that is being analyzed by health authorities in Mexico and worldwide that will allow us to determine how quickly normalcy can return to an urban center like Mexico City.

RAY SUAREZ: How will you know when it's OK to open up again? And will people believe that Mexico is open for business once you say, "It's OK, it's safe, come back"?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: Well, I'm sure that when we are able to do that, it will be validated by other countries that are working in close cooperation with Mexico and by the World Health Organization. I don't think that Mexico would try and portray a situation which does not exist. And when we do so, we will do it with the facts and in a very responsible and transparent fashion.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there anything that you still need at this point? Has the WHO, has the Pan American Health Organization, these organizations that exist for just this kind of emergency been called upon by your country?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: Yes, and they're working actively not only in testing, but also in trying to determine how the virus is propagating or could propagate. We have CDC health officials working right now in the field with Mexico. Mexico is sending samples of labs both to the World Health Organization and to U.S. and Canadian laboratories.

So I think that this is the third premise on which we have been working since the outbreak, which is to ensure that, through international cooperation, we are working to shut it down.

RAY SUAREZ: Are you getting advice on just how long it's possible to restrict the movements of a place like Mexico City, with more than 20 million people? At some point, people are going to want to move. They're going to get cabin fever. There will be more casual disregarding of the rules. If you keep people out of each other's way for a while, can you suppress the disease enough to start lifting the restrictions?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: I'm not an expert on public health, Ray, certainly. But I can tell you that, in this case, there will be two critical denominators: common sense and the medical data that is being analyzed by health authorities in Mexico and worldwide that will allow us to determine how quickly normalcy can return to an urban center like Mexico City.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, thanks for joining us.

ARTURO SARUKHAN: Thank you, Ray.