On either side of the long straight road to La Gloria scrawny horses pull plows across flat sandy fields, sending up clouds of dust that mingle with the early morning mist. For the final couple of kilometers, the tarmac turns to gravel as the road begins to wind a little on its way into the village in the southern Mexican state of Veracruz.
Here, in an unassuming little white house with a blue door, lives Edgar Hernandez Hernandez. A neat four-year-old with a shy smile, he might just turn out to be key to understanding why swine flu is slowly shutting down Mexico and keeping health officials around the world locked in emergency meetings.
“My head hurt a lot,” Edgar told this reporter on Tuesday, recalling the illness that had him laid up in bed for a week at the end of last month. “I couldn’t breathe.”
Local nurses took a swab from Edgar’s throat on April 3 and two weeks later this found its way into a batch of samples sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. By this time the Mexican government was getting increasingly concerned about a sudden spike in atypical flu cases that had begun to kill people.
Within hours they were informed that many of the samples tested positive for a totally new strain of swine flu and Edgar’s was the earliest case of all.
The authorities have so far offered no explanation of why the disease’s first stop in Mexico should be a boy in La Gloria. But residents of the village, many of whom believe they suffered from the disease before Edgar, are blaming the huge pig farm in the area that belongs to a multinational, Smithfield Foods.
“We are not doctors so obviously it isn’t for us to say really, but it is very hard for us not to think that the pig farms around here don’t have something to do with it,” Anselma Amador says as she sweeps outside her door. “The flu has pig material in it and we are humans, we are not pigs.”
The pigs at the heart of the village’s angst live in modules around the valley in long metal buildings with large rectangular tanks attached. The closest one to La Gloria is a few kilometers back down the paved road and then a couple more down a cactus-lined track, where the wind whips up dust clouds that travel across the plain.
The tank lies open, apparently unattended, a putrid odor emanating from it. Residents in La Gloria say the prevailing wind invariably blows the fetid air their way, where it gets stuck because of the hills that rise just behind the village.
The company has vehemently denied that its pigs had anything to do with the outbreak and has shown journalists around pristine installations. The federal government has also said that it has no reason to believe there is any link.
“I think it is foolhardy to make such a link,” Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said on Monday, adding that the agricultural ministry had regularly tested the pigs and found nothing to indicate an association.
Cordova also insisted Edgar was the only case of swine flu in La Gloria — although residents say his illness came after weeks during which most of the village fell ill.
In February a seven-month-old baby died of pneumonia and early last month, a two-month-old died. The parents were told both children had died of bacterial pneumonia. Then, around March 21, dozens of people started suffering high fevers, terrible aches and sore throats that led to trouble breathing.