Questions Abound About Mexico’s Response to the Crisis

Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2009

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The World Health Organization on Sunday vouched for Mexico’s actions. Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general of the agency, said Mexico had reported the swine flu cases “in a timely manner. They were having influenza season when the cases started . . . and we don’t typically ask countries to report such cases. When they noticed increases in pneumonia and serious pneumonia, they initiated investigations, began testing and sent samples out to other labs.

“They have done a really good job in doing what a country should do.”

But other experts say Mexico’s overwhelmed health system is underfunded and bogged down by useless regulations and layers of bureaucracy that will always impede a swift response to emergencies.

Oswaldo Medina, president of the Mexican Epidemiological Assn., said the system slows down identification of diseases, prevents fast response and hinders communication across hospitals, cities and states in the event of an epidemic.

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The government has released scant information on who has died and on the exact path the outbreak has taken.

Most of those who died were of “productive age,” that is, between 20 and 50, Cordova said, a group that usually doesn’t get flu shots and doesn’t think it can get sick.

The medical community noticed a jump in flu cases, some lethal, in mid-March, when the flu season normally would be winding down.

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Mexico does not have laboratories that can perform the sophisticated testing to identify unknown strains, as in this case. Calderon said he expected Mexico to have newer labs that are up to the task operating within 72 hours.

Sunday was another day when Mexico City residents stayed home in an effort to protect themselves. Soccer teams played to empty stadiums; priests prayed to empty pews (sermons were broadcast via radio).

Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard had said earlier that five more people had died in the capital overnight.

Six million face masks have been distributed, Calderon said. The body overseeing national elections scheduled for July told parties to suspend rallies and public meetings.

Still, there was widespread concern that the outbreak might be even worse than has been described. Mexicans, and especially residents of the capital, are generally mistrustful of the government. There is a long history here of less-than-truthful official pronouncements, mysterious plane crashes, assassinations and massacres, which gives rise to conspiracy theories and profound doubt.

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One newspaper editorial suggested that the handling of this crisis by the Calderon government could become its Hurricane Katrina, referring to the Bush administration’s badly botched disaster relief effort after the destruction of New Orleans.

“New or not, the disease was manifesting itself more than a week ago .&Nbsp;. . enough for authorities to pay attention and come up with a plan of action,” the leftist daily La Jornada said in its principal editorial. “Instead, the government discourse has been characterized by imprecisions and fooleries that, like it or not, created confusion, uncertainty and anxiety in the public.”

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