As swine flu runs rampant in the Southern Hemisphere winter, world health experts are concerned that some hard-hit countries have been reluctant to take forceful measures to protect public health.
Argentina’s new health minister, Juan Manzur, only raised the country’s official death toll to 44 on Friday. He now estimates that as many as 320,000 people have been stricken with influenza, including about 100,000 with swine flu — a huge jump in what the government acknowledged previously, and an indication that Argentina’s hospitals will remain overwhelmed for months.
Britain, for its part, had refused to do widespread testing for swine flu, slowing the WHO’s efforts to declare that the viral spread had become a pandemic. British Health Minister Andy Burnham belatedly acknowledged on Thursday that London needed to revamp its response and could see up to 100,000 new swine flu cases a day by the end of next month.
The government was reluctant to implement unpopular measures leading up to last Sunday’s midterm elections in Argentina. Now that they’re over, it ramped up its response this week — doubling the winter vacation to a month for schools nationwide, sending pregnant women and other vulnerable workers home for 15 days and urging people to avoid crowds whenever possible.
But Argentina still refuses to declare a national public health emergency, despite ranking third in the world for swine flu deaths, behind the US and Mexico.
“An unfortunate situation in Argentina was this mix of elections and a pandemic, which we epidemiologists don’t recommend,” said Mirta Roses, director of the Pan American Health Organization, which has 25 experts working in Argentina.
Mexico, in contrast, deserves the whole world’s thanks for its forceful, costly and very public response, which included a near-total shutdown of the nation’s public life that cost the country US$3.5 billion.
It helped slow the initial spread of the virus and gave other nations more time to prepare, said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan (陳馮富珍).
“Mexico gave the world an early warning, and it also gave the world a model of rapid and transparent reporting, aggressive control measures, and generous sharing of data and samples,” Chan said on Thursday during a two-day summit of health ministers in Cancun.
Just how effective Mexico’s draconian response was will take some time to determine, because scientists will have to compare what was done with what might have happened had the country done nothing, said Nancy Cox, who leads the influenza division of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“However, they were so courageous to do what they did. It impressed the entire world,” Cox said.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon also faced resistance at home. He said some state officials wanted to hide the numbers for fear it would cause panic, but he overruled them. Mexico’s toll has since risen to 10,687 cases, including 119 deaths.