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With memories of the 2009 pandemic, Mexico braces for flu season

January 31, 2012 |  1:01 pm

REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Mexican authorities report a fresh outbreak of the swine flu that killed hundreds and virtually paralyzed this sprawling capital in 2009. But the number of cases fits the "normal" flu-season pattern and should not cause alarm, Health Minister Salomon Chertorivski Woldenberg said Tuesday.

Chertorivski said the H1N1 virus will continue to infect a growing number of Mexicans over the next month or so, but then should taper off. For the month of January, health officials have confirmed 1,456 cases of the virus, popularly known as swine flu. Of that number, 29 people have died from the disease, Chertorivski said, most suffering other health problems that made them vulnerable.

The January number of H1N1 cases exceeds all flu cases for all of last year, and the number of dead for January comes close to the number of all flu deaths for last year, a period of relatively little flu infection (link in Spanish).

The health minister spoke to a group of foreign correspondents. His comments seemed in part designed to allay fears that the disease might again reach epidemic levels. Many Mexicans are also worried about reports that the pace of infections seemed to have soared at the end of January, when the number of confirmed cases tripled in a single week.

In the 2009 outbreak, the Mexican government took extraordinary measures, including shutting down schools across the nation, as well as popular tourist sites in Mexico City, restaurants and some public transportation.

This year, several schools did close briefly after numerous children showed up in class with flu symptoms.  Chertorivski said the schools were private and took the decision to shutter based on parents' demands.

"There is no reason for schools to close," he said.  But he said the kind of preventative measures that have been in place for three years should be reinforced,  including frequent hand-washing and the use of sanitation gels. And any child who reports to class with symptoms will be sent home immediately, he added.

Chertorivski acknowledged that Mexicans suffered "hypersensitivities" about the H1N1 flu, because of the trauma of 2009, when approximately 1,400 people died out of 70,000 cases.

"It was a difficult moment in the history of the country," he said, noting the devastating effect that the outbreak had on Mexico's economy and tourism industry. 

Officials also said Mexico was better prepared this year to detect and treat the disease, which in 2009 was initially something of a mystery. It took weeks for Mexican scientists, working with experts from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to identify the new strain and understand how it would run its course.

As it spread to other continents, the outbreak became a pandemic, which was not declared over until August 2010.

Today "we know the threat we are facing," said Pablo Kuri Morales, deputy health minister for prevention. "We know the virus. We have vaccines. We can make timely diagnoses."

The vaccine used this and last year contains antibodies for H1N1 but also for a different strain, H3N2, which is being seen more frequently in the United States this season, authorities said.


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PHOTO: A girl is vaccinated against flu in Queretaro, Mexico, last week. Credit: Enrique Contla / EPA