TOPICS > Health

Mexico City on the Mend From H1N1 Outbreak

May 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Ray Suarez updates the situation in Mexico City surrounding the H1N1 flu virus outbreak as some businesses and public institutions, including schools and libraries, begin to reopen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The latest now on Mexico as it recovers from the flu outbreak. More public institutions reopened today, as Mexico City continues to return to life. Ray Suarez and our Global Health unit have been covering the story on-air and online all week, and I spoke with Ray a short time ago.

Ray, hello. They opened the schools, the high schools and universities in Mexico today. How has that gone?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, by all reports, it’s gone pretty well. The word went out not only in Mexico City, but across the country that every school in this country of 110 million people was going to get a complete scrub-down from top to bottom, in part to reassure parents sending their kids back to school that there was no danger of infection.

In the early hours of this morning, high school kids and older — college, as well — started heading back to their places of learning. And at each one, at the front door, there were health monitors watching the people coming back to school for signs of flu infection.

And, in several cases, when they saw someone who looked like they were ill, who was coughing, they took them over for more screening. And if they had a fever or any other signs of the flu, they sent them home. They’re trying to not only reassure parents, but stop the spread of the infection in its tracks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ray, in Mexico City, they’ve decided to reopen casinos, bars, sporting events. What’s the background of that?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, originally, there was a complete shutdown in the capital. It was like a ghost town for many of the last two weeks, many days in the last two weeks. But when they began to open things up again, there was still some restrictions: sports stadiums, dance halls, casinos, bars.

But there started to be a lot of pressure on the mayor of Mexico City to reopen these places, as well. After all, people had the feeling that the worst was over, and they wanted to get back to their normal pursuits. And the business interests were very anxious that these places should be allowed to open again.

So they started to pressure the mayor. And he consulted with his scientific committee. And, lo and behold, after just one day of those new set of restrictions, it was decided that everything should open.

And I spoke to a member of the mayor’s scientific committee. He’s one of the leading epidemiologists in the country, Dr. Guillermo Ruiz Palacios, and he explained that the feeling was that there wasn’t that much spread of infection any longer.

DR. GUILLERMO RUIZ PALACIOS, health adviser to Mexico City Mayor: It was made on the basis of the information that we have on the drop of the new cases, which are the reflect of that the transmission seems to be already stopped.

RAY SUAREZ: A new poll says 7 out of 10 Mexicans think the emergency is over. Is it over?

DR. GUILLERMO RUIZ PALACIOS: No, it’s not. Of course not.

Flu season starts in several months

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Ruiz says, yes, there's still danger of infection from flu in Mexico, and he says that, unfortunately, there won't be time to reformulate the annual vaccine that Mexicans -- as Americans -- get to prevent the flu, to have it formulated in a way that would include the H1N1 virus when it's time to get vaccinated for the seasonal flu.

That season begins in September, but they would have to have the vaccine prepared by August to have it to every part of the country to vaccinate the population. And he says they're pretty much running out of time, unless they were to develop nearly immediately a vaccine against H1N1.

And, you know, for all the serious public health implications, everything that's going on, there are some slightly absurd stories happening in Mexico, as well. Just the other day, in a soccer game between a Mexican team and a side from Chile called Everton, a Mexican player began very ostentatiously coughing on a Chilean defender, trying to give him the idea that he had the flu so he would back off in the midst of the game. A ref saw that. The player's been suspended, and there's no word yet on whether he'll appeal his suspension.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You know, Ray, you were telling me there's been a public opinion poll just out showing that a quarter of Mexico residents say they think this whole swine flu epidemic is a myth. What's the background? What's the explanation for that?

RAY SUAREZ: As soon as the emergency was lifted, public opinion researchers went out to the country asking them about their impressions of the state of emergency, whether the alerts worked, whether the government did a good job. And 25 percent -- a quarter of the population, according to this one poll -- revealed that they thought the whole thing was made up and they couldn't see any signs.

Now, Judy, this actually matches pretty well the results that came during the state of emergency, when 94 percent of Mexicans reported not knowing anybody who had caught the flu.

And this is maybe the downside of doing a good job. The government put some very tough measures in place to try to stop the spread of the flu so, in fact, most people didn't know anybody who had caught the disease. And trusting the government is a fairly new thing in this country, which has often not been a model democracy, so that residual lack of trust leaves a quarter of the population thinking, "Ah, they made the whole thing up."

Mexican states vary in response

JUDY WOODRUFF: And along those lines, Ray, you were also telling me that, you know, while everything was very tightly buttoned up there in Mexico City, you could drive out of the city for about, what, 40 minutes and life would be practically going on as normal.

RAY SUAREZ: Among the Mexican states, there were differing approaches to the emergency. And the neighboring state of Mexico, which is different from Mexico City, the federal district, they had a much lighter set of restrictions in place. So people who had cabin fever could jump in the car and drive to the state of Mexico and enjoy themselves in a bar or restaurant.

The restrictions were more serious in Mexico City because of the tremendous population density here. One-fifth of the entire country of 110 million live in Mexico, the federal district.

So it was no surprise that they were very afraid that this new disease, this new variant of the flu, for which people had no resistance and built up no antibodies, if it had gotten established, well established in the population, it could have been a public health catastrophe. And it wasn't.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Ray Suarez reporting for us from Mexico City. Travel safely coming home. Thanks.

RAY SUAREZ: Good to talk to you, Judy.