Mexican Officials Say Flu's Ability to Spread May Be Low

Governments around the world are launching medical and clean up operations to protect citizens against swine flu infections.
By William Booth, Anne-Marie O'Connor and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 2, 2009

MEXICO CITY, May 1 -- Mexican health officials studying the new influenza virus said Friday they have found that its ability to spread from person to person may be fairly low, raising hopes that the extreme measures taken here -- the shutting down of all nonessential commerce and government -- can contain its spread.

In an obscure government building in the south of this city, dozens of experts in public health gathered in a "war room" to monitor on computer screens the spread of swine flu around the country. While it is far too early to answer with any certitude the most pressing questions -- how infectious and lethal is the virus? -- they offered some preliminary assessments.

Hugo López-Gatell, director of epidemiology and disease control for the Mexican Health Ministry, said one reason for higher mortality among Mexican patients is that they delay seeking help. "One of our biggest lessons was that people delay in getting to health centers," López-Gatell said. "Prompt attention diminished the deaths."

Steve Waterman, a team leader at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who is in Mexico to assist with the health crisis, said, "Maybe there's something about using a lot of drugs at home that may make things worse. Maybe Mexico City's high elevation . . . makes it more likely for you to have problems."

Waterman added, "They have excellent doctors and antiviral drugs, so they should be able to manage cases well." But some patients may be waiting until they are extremely sick before seeking medical help, he said. "If they come in late, there's often nothing you can do."

There have been 397 confirmed cases, and 16 of those patients have died. The number of confirmed cases is expected to rise dramatically, as Mexico has just put in place laboratories to test for the virus.

Asked to estimate the mortality rate of the outbreak in Mexico, Waterman said, "That's one of the major questions we're trying to answer."

"Mexico is in the earlier stage of transmission," he said.

Unknown Point of Origin

Scientists still do not know where the virus originated. In one major outbreak that tipped off scientists that something was amiss in Mexico, 616 people out of a population of 2,155 got sick in the town of La Gloria, which is surrounded by pig farms in Veracruz state. But Miguel Ángel Lezana, the director of the National Center for Epidemiology and Disease Control, said he doubts that pig farms caused the virus. There is only one confirmed case of swine flu in La Gloria, a 5-year-old boy who recovered.

"I don't think so. The farms are quite far," Lezana said. "Our agricultural authorities already made some analysis with the pigs there. They found nothing."

Said the Health Ministry's López-Gatell, "We don't know yet. It could have been in California, where there were the first known cases, or it could have been in any other part of the world, or in Mexico, of course."

López-Gatell said health officials noticed an increase of serious flu cases in the annual flu season, which runs from October to March. In the previous season, they had seen 4,000 serious cases of flu by March 2008. During this season, they had seen 4,000 such cases by December. Further outbreaks throughout the country brought an additional 3,000 cases by March -- a total of 7,000 for the season.

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