Little Boy at the Center of a Viral Storm

Five-year-old Edgar Enrique Hernandez, who got sick in late March, is the earliest confirmed case of the swine flu virus in Mexico.
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

LA GLORIA, Mexico, April 28 -- One person who may have helped launch a rapidly spreading flu outbreak likes to draw hearts and flowers in the dirt outside his home. He likes to climb trees and give hugs and play with his soccer ball. And despite a persistent cough, he does not, he insists, feel sick.

"Not anymore," said Édgar Enrique Hernández, a smiling 5-year-old Mexican boy who tested positive for the deadly new strain of swine flu in this windswept valley surrounded by pig-breeding farms. "I feel good."

Although authorities have not determined that swine flu started in La Gloria, a village of about 2,500 people in the state of Veracruz, Édgar, who got sick in late March, is the earliest confirmed case of the virus in Mexico. He was just one of several hundred people from La Gloria and surrounding areas that fell ill around that time in an unexplained outbreak that left two children dead and prompted authorities to fumigate the entire village.

"I don't have words, I don't have answers," said Édgar's mother, María del Carmen Hernández, as she cried under a portrait of Jesus in her living room. "I feel terrible about all of this, because the people are thinking that this was all my son's fault. I don't think this is anyone's fault."

This dust-strewn hamlet of dirt streets surrounded by desert cactus and scrub brush has become a focus of attention for the spread of the virus because of the prevalence of pig farms in the area, and because of Édgar. But the link is far from certain, and infectious-disease specialists stressed that no one has located a pig infected with this particular virus, so proximity between people and pigs may not be all that's required to contract the disease. The strain appears, in fact, to be Eurasian in origin, further adding to the mystery of where it began.

Miguel Angel Lezana, the head of Mexico's National Center for Epidemiology and Disease Control, said there was an outbreak of respiratory illness compatible with influenza in La Gloria between March 9 and April 10 -- and that Édgar was a late case. Lezana said the boy showed symptoms on April 1, which was several days after two patients in California showed symptoms. Édgar was found to have been infected with swine flu after Canadian researchers confirmed the results April 23.

"We don't know where it started, California or Mexico," Lezana said.

Lezana said that none of Édgar's relatives worked near or at the area's industrial hog farms, and that tests of pigs so far have not shown any signs of the virus.

Some residents of La Gloria blame the farms for their illnesses, saying the open-air waste pits dry out and the hot winds blow dust through nearby villages.

Scientists, however, say it is more likely that people who worked with pigs became infected and passed it on to other people. "Influenza in pigs is a respiratory disease, so there is much less risk associated with pig waste," said Andrew Pekosz, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. "The primary risk is from swine [flu]-infected people, and not swine or any swine products."

The farms around La Gloria are run by Granjas Carroll de Mexico, which is partly owned by Smithfield Foods, the largest producer of hogs in the United States. Smithfield said in a statement released Monday that it did not believe its operations were in any way connected to the outbreak because it had found "no clinical signs or symptoms of the presence of swine influenza in the company's swine herd or its employees at its joint ventures in Mexico."

Residents said the children of La Gloria often come down with colds and flus, but this year was different. The outbreak, which began in mid-March, led more than 800 people to seek medical attention, said the mayor of nearby Perote, Guillermo Franco Vázquez. Lines formed outside the La Gloria health clinic with children and parents suffering from fevers and body aches.

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