Swine Flu: Ground Zero

Five-year-old Edgar Enrique Hernandez, who got sick in late March, is the earliest confirmed case of the swine flu virus in Mexico.

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 29, 2009; 2:30 PM

William Booth, Mexico City bureau chief and foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, was online Wednesday, April 29, at 2:30 p.m. ET from Mexico City to discuss the latest news about the virus and answer questions about the earliest confirmed case of the virus, that of a 5-year old boy from La Gloria, Mexico, who tested positive and who is believed to be at the center of the swine flu outbreak.

____________________

William Booth: Hello from Mexico City. Fast moving story continues to evolve. Mexico is struggling both to investigate new cases, take care of the sick, calm the freaked out, and figure out the source and course of outbreak.

_______________________

Rockville, Md.: Mr. Booth - Since we know the flu season to be in the winter months, does the fact that the approach of warmer weather impact the spread of this strain in any way?

William Booth: The Mexican health officials were surprised -- and suspected that they were facing something unusual -- because they did see a spike in flu-like cases so late in the flu season. By mid-March, the flu season should be pretty much over in Mexico. The answer to the question of whether this specific virus likes/dislikes slightly warmer weather, I do not know.

_______________________

Alexandria, Va.: The swine flu media and government extravaganza is just out of control. How many people die of the "normal" flu every year, without near this much coverage? For that matter, how many people die in Mexico City (population roughly 22 million -- wikipedia) each week from some other cause?

The "swine flu" fatality numbers may sound bad to the uninformed, but really are just a blip in [the] grand scheme of things. Sadly, all of this out of control coverage is causing real economic harm to many people and businesses that is much larger than the damage directly caused by the disease. The travel and tourism industry alone must be seeing huge losses.

Can we please inject some reality into the coverage? Government and mainstream media don't always need to follow the "turn the littlest thing into breaking news" mantra of the cable news networks.

William Booth: I think that is a very valid point/question. I believe in the United States, 36,000 people die of flu-related causes each year. In Mexico, where I am right now, we are not sure how many cases are swine flu and how many ordinary flu. The government has announced this morning here that they have confirmed only 49 cases of swine flu, of which 7 patients have died. There are listing another 159 as "probable," but I'm unclear what that means. Another 1300 are hospitalized nationwide.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: How come the people who have died are almost all Mexican? Even the little boy who was the first person to die in the USA was here on a visit from his native Mexico. Is this something to do with acquired immunities to something else (other than to the flu)?

William Booth: Another excellent question to which the scientists do not have an answer yet. Why are cases in Mexico apparently more lethal? Is it virus? Health of patients? Resistance factors? There was a confirmed death in USA this morning.

_______________________

washingtonpost.com: Swine Flu Claims First Life in the United States ((Post, April 29)

_______________________

Philadelphia, Pa.: Has the press or the medical profession considered the ethics of labeling someone as "patient zero"? Hopefully the boy survived, yet hasn't this created a lifetime of guilt and subjected the boy to a lifetime of misunderstood hatred?

William Booth: I hope we don't call him patient zero, as that would be inaccurate. He was the first confirmed case in Mexico. But other patients -- in US or elsewhere -- may have become symptomatic/sick earlier. Him being the first was partly an accident of who was tested and when. I also agree with you about the burden of being described as the patient zero. In fact, I recall that the patient zero of the AIDS epidemic was of course not the first.

_______________________

washingtonpost.com: Little Boy at the Center of a Viral Storm (Post, April 29)

_______________________

Woodbridge, Va.: My friend and I have a trip planned (and paid for) to Playa del Carmen on 5/20 to 5/27. We're not sure whether to cancel or not. We've intended to take the prescription drugs, respirators, water, and hand sanitizer. Do you recommend we cancel the trip, or go with precautions? Where do you foresee this flu in about 3 weeks? Will it spread to the Cancun/Yucatan area?

William Booth: I'm not the person to be recommending travel. But here is what I know today. Some of the high school students who got sick spent their spring break in Cancun. But did they contact flu there? Or on the plane/airport/bus/elsewhere. The officials do not know. My colleague Josh Paltrow is in Cancun today, so the Washington Post will have more information later. Unless things go crazy here, if it were me, I might go to Mexico for vacation. But you have some time to decide and I know, for example, that Aeromexico and other airliners were not penalizing passengers for changing their plans.

_______________________

American Death: I hate even mentioning this because it shows how over-covered this story is, but the toddler who died was a Mexican who came up here for treatment.

William Booth:

_______________________

Rockville, Md..: I think some of the reason for people worried about this is because there is no vaccine for this, no prevention from the flu shots received earlier in this flu season. I think people like the idea of having some protection from a virus, even if it isn't a sure thing. That said, I think the panic button was hit by some individuals way too early. We have a long way to go before we reach death rates even near the yearly average from 'regular' flu.

William Booth: Another wise perspective.

_______________________

Wilmington, N.C.: Ive heard that the young boy Edgar Hernandez most likely contacted the swine influenza from another person. Are they checking employees at the hog plant to find out if they were infected? By Mexico s standards what percent of people have died of those infected? Thank you.

William Booth: According to Joshua Paltrow's excellent story, they have checked out his relatives and I believe those he was in close contact with. They did not work at area pig farms and did not keep pigs themselves. I haven't heard of any screening of workers at pig farms, though they have been checking pigs.

_______________________

Falls Church, Va.: I understand that the cities are just completely quiet there right now because so many public areas are shut down until the 6th. How does it seem to you as someone living in the middle of this?

William Booth: I just out this morning reporting. Went to hospital, pharmacies and rode the subway. Subway was a bit eerie, as even in the best of times, it has a germy vibe: warm, humid, packed. Anyway, Mexicans are stoic folks. City is quiet but not dead. Lots of stores shuttered.

_______________________

Bethesda, Md.: We have faced the fear of pandemic several times in recent years with bird flu and SARS. Is this just the next bump in the road and/or media feeding frenzy? Just now you said there was a confirmed death in the U.S. but neglected to mention that the victim was a Mexican national visiting. How does health care in Mexico affect the death toll as well?

William Booth: Regarding the media frenzy, I think we at the Post are trying to put out reasonable, timely information, both from officialdom, the science community, and the streets. People in Mexico, where I am based, on watching the news, but not panicking. Of course, more people do show up at hospitals and clinics with symptoms that turn out not to be flu -- but in a way, they are doing what they are told by medical officials who ask them to come to the hospital if they show flu symptoms.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Are Mexican authorities certain this originated on a farm? Are they close to pinpointing where?

William Booth: No, in fact they are saying -- as of this morning -- that they don't have any evidence yet it came from pig farms in Mexico.

_______________________

Minneapolis, Minn.: Mr... Booth -- Thank you for taking questions today. Last night I heard would-be Surgeon General Dr. Sanjay Gupta say that, despite the seriousness of the situation, the odds of the average CNN viewer coming down with swine flu were very low. Does that reflect the general thinking of other medical experts? I don't know if he was just trying to appear calm and reasonable (perhaps difficult to do given the almost hysterical edge CNN has been giving its coverage of this issue) and provide some more welcome news, or if he's way off base with his assessment. What do you think?

William Booth: I think CNN's would-be surgeon general is correct. At this point, you're chances of catching this flu is vanishingly small.

_______________________

South Riding, Va.: I thought I heard that this flu has characteristics of avian, swine, and human flu. Is this true? Is this normal or does this mean it was man made?

William Booth: These viruses have the ability to hop and mix, moving from human to bird to pig and back. Not man-made.

_______________________

Falls Church, Va.: Help! I have an 8-month-old infant and we were set to fly internationally on Friday. My baby is already sick with a cold, and I'm concerned that her weakened immunity and exposure to other travelers in customs and at the airports could put her at risk. Should I cancel this trip?

William Booth: Call your kid doc and ask. I feel your concern but I am the wrong person to give that advice. (Also might depend where you're going, your daughter's symptoms, history, etc).

_______________________

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Has the medical community determined what the incubation period is --how long from the time of exposure to when symptoms appear?

William Booth: Incubation periods for flu viruses are usually 1 to 3 days I believe. They haven't told us if this one is different.

_______________________

Smithfield, Va.: Why tar all pigs with the "Swine Flu" label? Shouldn't we be more precise and call it the "Smithfield Industrial Farming Flu"?

William Booth: I don't think they have discovered the site of virus evolution yet...

_______________________

washingtonpost.com: Centers for Disease Control and Protection

_______________________

State College, Pa.: How extensive is the Mexican health authorities' flu surveillance? Is prospective sampling being done now that the CDC and WHO have sent representatives?

William Booth: CDC and WHO are here in Mexico, though their teams are small. The Mexican health ministries have been leading the effort, though they have consulted with CDC and Canadians to test samples and confirm swine flu. The Mexican system seem good but perhaps not as good as Europe or US. Their response has been robust but, for example, they were slow to test for virus -- they don't have the same laboratories. Medical care and monitoring are way better, for example, in major cities such as Mexico City, than out in the country.

_______________________

William Booth: Regarding best practices for travelling (whether to mask, whip, etc) we are posting CDC website link now...

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: So where is Ground Zero? Is it where that little boy was, La Gloria in Yucatan? Or do we not know where GZ is?

William Booth: I think the definitive answer to that is presently unknown. Little Edgar lives in La Gloria, which is in the state of Vera Cruz. He is first confirmed case in Mexico, but that does not make him first person to be sick with virus -- nor do they know if Edgar passed the virus to anyone.

_______________________

St. Petersburg, Fla.: We see pictures of air travelers with masks -- wouldn't they be better advised to simply stay hydrated during the trip, use nasal sprays to maintain their natural protective coatings, wash their hands frequently and use an alcohol-based cloth to wipe down their food tray and chair arms? Are they keeping these masks on for an entire 3-4 hour flight? If they take it off for a short time to eat or drink aren't they destroying any effectiveness the mask might have?

William Booth: We just posted (or are posting now) the link to the CDC website on safety tips for travel.

_______________________

Langley, Va.: Hi Mr. Booth,

I think what worries me most (and there's probably no reassurance for this) is that the 'flu could "go underground" and come out more virulent some months later (like the 1918 pandemic did).

Are we incorporating this strain into our yearly 'flu vaccines for next year?

William Booth: I think that is the concern. The 1917-1919 flu came in waves, from relatively benign to more lethal.

_______________________

State College, Pa.: On a more personal note, do you wear a N95 mask when you go outside?

William Booth: I wear this blue Medline face mask that likely protects me from nothing.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: In Mexico and Texas they are canceling some public events and extracurricular activities for children. Should Americans with infants and young children avoid public places and travel at airports as a precaution? I'm particularly worried about the health of my baby. I received a flu vaccine and have breastfed, but since there is no vaccine for this strain it seems to be a greater threat to infants than the normal flu.

William Booth: I would give your doctor a buzz and see what he/she thinks.

_______________________

William Booth: Thank you all for the intelligent thoughts and questions. I have to slip out a bit early.

_______________________

U.S. health officials today reported the first confirmed death in the United States from swine flu -- a toddler from Mexico who died in Texas -- as the infection spread to more locations across the country and around the world and the World Health Organization considered raising its pandemic threat alert level.

_______________________

Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

Discussion Archive

Viewpoint is a paid discussion. The Washington Post editorial staff was not involved in the moderation.

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity