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Heading to the Epicenter of the H1N1 Flu Virus

Earlier this week, out of curiosity mind you, I visited the seat map for my flight at the United Airlines Web site to see how many people would be flying down to Mexico with me today.

The number was dwindling. At boarding time at Dulles International Airport, just 38 people headed down the jetway toward the seat that would take them to the country dominating the headlines over the past days. We had lost some companions along the way as the week wore on, as the TV screens and newspaper front pages filled with people in masks and rubber gloves, empty city streets, shuttered schools and shops emptied of customers.

I will enter that world too, in a few hours. No anxiety… no hesitation… just a reporterly kind of nerves, restless foot-tapping anticipation of a story that needs to be gathered, understood and told. We’ll hit the streets and start figuring it all out, to the extent we can figure it all out, and show it to audiences on TV and online over the next several days.

I was last in Mexico City for the NewsHour in 2006, when the presidential election went down to the wire, decided by a few thousand votes in a country of 110 million people. The Mexican capital is a sprawling, brawling, crowded sea of life. More than 20 million people live there. As a lover of cities I was glad to jump in at the deep end, plunge into the shops, eat off the food carts, and wander the world’s biggest plaza, the Zocalo. Solitude is not a state easily associated with Mexico City.

It’s going to be a little weird to be in many of these same places again, minus the people. The places that give the city its thrumming, nerve-jangling pace have been on TV over the past several days… empty. A lone man in a mask climbs the steps from a subway station in the heart of town. A few disappointed tourists walk from the front door of a closed museum. A greengrocer shoos flies from a pyramid of gleaming fruit, not a customer in sight.

Our NewsHour team is well armed for the week’s reporting: hand sanitizer, tamiflu, Vitamin C, dense weave face masks, Cipro and sunscreen. Co-workers indulge in gallows humor about the desirability of the assignment. My wife and kids half-heartedly complain, knowing that I’m going anyway. To top it off the restaurants… one of the great delights of this city after a long day of work, are closed. Puebla, scene of the battle on the 5th of May that turned the tide of Mexico’s war to eject its French occupiers and overthrow its Austrian-born emperor, has cancelled its Cinco de Mayo celebration.

Felipe Calderon, the Mexican president who began the year fighting an increasingly dangerous and destabilizing war against the countries’ drug cartels, is now marshalling the tools of the state to fight a more stealthy foe: a virus. He has asked that the country basically shut down to stop the spread of the 2009 H1N1 flu, and prepare to reopen for business on the 6th of May.

The tallies of new cases, suspected cases, hospitalizations and deaths have all been creeping, rather than shooting higher. That feedback is giving Mexican public health authorities hope that they may be turning the corner. This week — The NewsHour’s week on the ground — will test their hypothesis.

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