Two weeks after the first known swine flu death, Mexico still hasn’t given medicine to the families of the dead. It hasn’t determined where the outbreak began or how it spread. And while the government urges anyone who feels sick to go to hospitals, feverish people complain ambulance workers are scared to pick them up.
A portrait is emerging of a slow and confused response by Mexico to the gathering swine flu epidemic. And that could mean the world is flying blind into a global health storm.
Despite an annual budget of more than US$5 billion, Mexico’s health secretary said on Monday that his agency hasn’t had the resources to visit the families of the dead. That means doctors haven’t begun treatment for the population most exposed to swine flu, and most apt to spread it.
It also means medical sleuths don’t know how the victims were infected — key to understanding how the epidemic began and how it can be contained.
Foreign health officials were hesitant on Monday to speak critically about Mexico’s response, saying they want to wait until more details emerge before passing judgment. But already, Mexicans were questioning the government’s image of a country that has the crisis under control.
“Nobody believes the government anymore,” said Edgar Rocha, a 28-year-old office messenger. He said the lack of information is sowing distrust: “You haven’t seen a single interview with the sick!”
The political consequences could be serious. China was heavily criticized during the outbreak of SARS for failing to release details about the disease, feeding rumors and fear. And Mexico’s failed response to a catastrophic 1985 earthquake is largely credited with the demise of the party that had ruled the country since the 1920s.
“That is foremost in the minds of Mexican policymakers now,” said George Grayson at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “They’re thinking, ‘We don’t want another ‘85.’”
Indeed, Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova was defensive at a news conference on Monday as he was peppered with questions about why Mexico took so long to identify the outbreak, attempt to contain its spread and provide information.
“We never had this kind of epidemic in the world,” he said. “This is the first time we have this kind of virus.”
It remained unclear where and how the epidemic began, how it has spread, who it has killed or how fast it is growing. And the government has yet to take some basic steps critical to containing any outbreak, such as quick treatment of people who had contact with the victims.
In the town of Xonacatlan, just west of Mexico City, Antonia Cortes Borbolla said that nobody has given her medicine in the week since her husband succumbed to raging fever and weakened lungs that a lab has confirmed as swine flu.
No health workers have inspected her home, asked how her husband might have contracted the illness or tested the neighbors’ pigs, she said.
Cordova acknowledged that her case isn’t unique.
“We haven’t given medicine to all of them because we still don’t have enough personnel,” he said.
Cordova said he couldn’t provide information on the victims for reasons of confidentiality, but promised to eventually release a statistical breakdown. He said he couldn’t provide that data now “because it’s being processed.”
Asked whether he could at least say how many of the 20 confirmed victims were men and how many were women, he said: “I don’t have that information.”