Poverty, Tendency to Self-Medicate Help Drive Up Flu Deaths in Mexico

By Joshua Partlow and William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

MEXICO CITY, May 4 -- Toward the start of Mexico's swine flu outbreak on April 24, Ángel Flores Maldonado had so many patients at his office that when he finally escaped at 10:15 that night, the line still stretched into the street.

The doctor does not work at a hospital, or a clinic, or the government respiratory center, but on the evening shift at a pharmacy in the poor, crowded neighborhood of Iztapalapa, in eastern Mexico City. "The same but cheaper," reads the sign at this popular pharmacy chain, Similares, and that is the calculation many Mexicans seem to have made while the virus spread through the capital.

"In Mexico, we are very unaccustomed to going to the hospital. Here, if someone has a cold or anything else, they buy something in the pharmacy, or they leave it be," Flores said. "This is why Mexicans are dying. Because we are very indecisive about going to a hospital until it's too late."

Several theories have emerged as to why all but one of the confirmed deaths from swine flu have occurred in Mexico. Much of it is speculation -- that Mexico City's 7,300-foot elevation exacerbates respiratory illnesses, that there may be a slight variation between the viral strain prevalent in Mexico and swine flu elsewhere, that Mexico is further along in disease transmission and other countries will eventually see severe cases.

But a critical factor, according to specialists here, is that flu victims have delayed checking into hospitals until their condition has deteriorated so much they cannot be saved. While medicines are plentiful and cheap at Mexican pharmacies, swine flu antiviral medication was often not available or prohibitively expensive.

"Some patients arrive late at the hospitals, and to a certain degree this is a problem of education," José Sifuentes-Osorio, an infectious-disease specialist at the National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition, said in a radio interview Monday. "Many of our people, independent of their socioeconomic situation, self-medicate for three or four days, and they lose precious time."

What is clear about the outbreak is that the epicenter is Mexico City, a megalopolis of more than 20 million people where about a third of the population lives in poverty. As of April 30, when there were 397 confirmed swine flu cases, 285 of those people lived in Mexico City, according to the most recent available statistics from the Health Ministry. Of the 26 people it said had died of the virus, 20 lived in the capital.

Mexican officials said Monday that the epidemic appears to have slowed here and that commerce and government work would restart Wednesday after a five-day shutdown. Restaurants will start serving sit-down meals again, and schools will begin to reopen Thursday. The Health Ministry, whose figures differ from those of the World Health Organization's, said there were 802 cases, including 26 deaths. "This is about going back to normalcy but with everyone taking better care," said President Felipe Calderón.

Among the largest concentrations of swine flu cases is in Iztapalapa, with nearly 2 million people the densest, most populous of Mexico City's 16 districts, and also one of the poorest, said Miguel Ángel Lezana, the government's top epidemiologist.

"It's an area with a huge demographic concentration. Since this is a disease that is transmitted and spread by personal contact, when you have this huge accumulation [of] people in a rather small area, you have a greater opportunity to spread the disease," Lezana said. "Besides, these are the people with not actual lack of access, but difficulty getting access to medical facilities, so they get there late to the doctor or the ERs in case they need it."

The reasons behind this delay have little to do with apathy, according to Mexican patients and doctors.

"Delaying medical care is a characteristic of poverty. For people living close to the edge, taking off a day to visit a doctor or staying home sick is literally taking food out of their mouths," said Paul J. Gertler, a professor of economics at the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley, who has worked in Mexico.

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