The flap over Swine flu–or H1N1 flu as the pork breeders would prefer that we call it–appears, so far, to be much ado about not much. Although as of today the disease is reported to have spread to 34 countries, there have been deaths in only four–Mexico, USA, Canada, Costa Rica–and at least 90 percent have been in Mexico.
There are no official reports on whether there are racial differences in susceptibility or fatality rates, but this can’t be ruled out. Mexico is the only country so far in which the disease seems to be killing otherwise healthy people. Of the 64 confirmed deaths in Mexico as of May 15, the most common age bracket has been 20 to 29.
Things are different outside of Mexico. Of the 3,320 confirmed non-Mexican cases, the four fatalities in the United States and the single fatality so far in Canada have been of people who had chronic medical problems. Likewise, the flu-related death in Costa Rica was that of a 53-year-old diabetic who had a chronic heart condition. These people had the flu when they died, but they had other serious problems, and it would probably be an overstatement to say that they died of the flu.
Why does the disease appear to kill healthy people only in Mexico?
Although there is no information on the ethnic mix of the fatal cases, it may be that this disease is particularly dangerous for Amerindians. The original inhabitants of the Americas crossed the land bridge from Asia before animals were domesticated, so they were never exposed to the animal-born diseases that later ravaged Europe and Asia. Aside from llamas and related species, Indians had few domesticated animals of their own and did not evolve strong immune systems. They were overwhelmed by the Old World diseases the Spaniards brought to America, and it may be that today’s Latin Americans are still more vulnerable to diseases that originated in animals.
But in that case, then, why isn’t the new flu killing people all over Latin America?
It is possible that the virus hasn’t had a chance to spread, since Mexico’ s southern neighbors took such stout measures to keep the flu out. Cuba, Argentina, Ecuador, and Peru all barred flights to Mexico. Uruguay and Brazil refused to send soccer teams to play in Mexico–which so annoyed the Mexicans they broke off official sporting ties. The United States, on the other hand, did nothing to keep the flu out.
It could also be that all populations are equally vulnerable to the virus, and that the only reason it kills Mexicans is that their medical system is no good. But if a disease is going to behave differently in different countries it’s something worth knowing. So far, no one is asking the question.