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Archive: April 25th, 2009

DR. MARC SIEGEL: The Most Powerful Virus Is Fear Not Flu

With a new swine flu strain spreading among close to 1,000 people in Mexico and at least eight in the U.S., and with 61 reported deaths in Mexico, the most powerful virus pushing out its tentacles is not flu but fear. We are afraid of what we don’t know and what we don’t understand.

We hear about an unseen killer and we worry that we will be next. The best antidote for this kind of fear is the facts.

So let me take on the fear-laden terms. The first is pandemic. A pandemic means a new flu virus infecting people in several areas of the world at the same time. It can be mild, moderate, or severe. Everyone knows about the 1918 Blue Death that killed over 50 million people worldwide, but how many people realize that the last pandemic, in 1968, ameliorated by vaccines, antibiotics, and public health measures, killed only 32,000 in the U.S. and 700,000 worldwide, less than many yearly outbreaks.

The current swine flu outbreak is not a pandemic, as the outbreak is confined mainly to Mexico, but if it does become one, it is far more likely to be the 1968 variety because of modern public health measures and because we have been exposed to several parts of this virus before and have an immune memory to it.

Precautions like isolating sick people and use of the anti-virals Tamiflu and Relenza in order to decrease severity are wise precautions.

Wise too is closing schools in Mexico to prevent spread (schoolchildren are notorious flu spreaders), provided that this measure doesn’t send the world the wrong message that a massive pandemic is in the offing.

The second scare term is the pig itself. Pigs scare us. They are filthy noisy creatures. They are also loaded with flu viruses. This strain occurred because a bird virus mixed with at least one human virus and two pig viruses. Flus are changing all the time so a new strain
isn’t really a surprise.

We also need to be cautioned by the lessons of history. Back in 1976 an emerging swine flu virus appeared to be responsible for the death of a military recruit at Fort Dix (this later turned out to be erroneous), sparking a massive public hysteria fueled by Center for Disease Control press conferences.

I was reminded of this Friday when the CDC again spread fear about an emerging swine flu. We need to remember that fear causes people to take less precautions, but fighting contagions requires more precautions.

In 1976 Gerald Ford, trying for election, ordered 40 million vaccinations over a three to four month period of time, probably leading to almost 1,000 cases of ascending paralysis from the hastily made vaccine (Guillain Barre Syndrome) and driving most of the vaccine makers out of business. We certainly don’t need a repeat of this performance, in advance of any real worldwide threat.

Thirdly, we are also afraid because this disease is emerging in Mexico, a foreign land to the south over which we have no control. But fear of an unknown land doesn’t automatically translate to an American health risk. We are wise to have our scientists and public health officials tracking the outbreak, but we are not wise to anticipate the worst.

Like all flus, this one causes great fatigue, muscle aches, fevers, sore throat, nasal congestion, stomach upset, but is generally curable. The greatest risk is from secondary infections like pneumonia or ear infections, especially in the chronically ill. But in the U.S., if it spreads here, these problems are much more easily treated than in rural

We should be comforted by the time of the year. This is the end of the flu season, not the beginning. Flu viruses thrive in the low humidity of winter, not summer. It is very likely that this outbreak will die out automatically as the summer comes. It will remain necessary to track it because it could reappear in the fall, but it is very unlikely that it will erupt into a pandemic this summer.

I am glad that this outbreak is a swine rather than a bird flu, not because pig viruses are intrinsically safer than bird viruses, but because the greater lesson to guide us here comes from the 1976 pig hysteria, rather than from the 1918 bird flu plague.


Marc Siegel MD, an associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, is a FOX News Medical Contributor. He is the author of “Bird Flu; Everything You Need to Know About the Next Pandemic”, and “False Alarm; the Truth About the Epidemic of Fear.”


April 25, 2009: Growing Panic in Mexico City

Mexico City: Mayor states 70% of bars, clubs and restaurants shut down.

Mexico City: Supermarkets crowded with people "panic-buying" supplies.

Mexico City: Police arrest two for selling face masks at 25x the normal rate. Most pharmacies sold out of masks.

Mexican President declares state of emergency.


Mexican Army soldiers hand out surgical masks to people in cars at an intersection in Mexico City, Friday April 24, 2009. Mexican authorities said 60 people may have died from a swine flu virus in Mexico, and world health officials worry it could unleash a global flu epidemic.

(AP Photo)


People wear masks as they stand with their bags inside a bus station in Mexico City April 24, 2009.


Soldiers patrol the strees wearing face masks as prevention against the swine flu virus in Mexico City. A new swine flu outbreak that has killed up to 68 people in Mexico has "pandemic potential," the World Health Organization warned Saturday, as concern grew of the virus spreading in the US and worldwide.

(AFP – Photo)


AP Photo



Swine Flu in Mexico- Timeline of Events


At Veratect, we operate two operations centers based in the United States (one in the Washington, DC area and one in Seattle, WA) that provide animal and human infectious disease event detection and tracking globally.  Both operations centers are organizationally modeled after our National Weather Service using a distinct methodology inspired by the natural disaster and meteorology communities.  Our analysts handle information in the native vernacular language and have been thoroughly trained in their discipline, which include cultural-specific interpretation of the information.  We are currently partnered with 14 organizations that provide us with direct ground observations in 238 countries.  We are a multi-source, near-real time event detection and tracking organization with years of experience in this discipline.

March 30

Veratect reported that a 47-year-old city attorney for Cornwall was hospitalized in a coma at Ottawa General Hospital following a recent trip to Mexico.  Family members reported the individual voluntarily reported to the hospital after gradually feeling ill upon returning from his trip on 22 March.  The source stated that the hospital did not know the cause of illness.  The case was reportedly on a respirator and awaiting a blood transfusion, but sources did not provide symptoms or a suggested cause of illness. This information was available in our web portal to all clients, including CDC and multiple US state and local public health authorities, however no one had connected this man’s illness with a potential crisis in Mexico.

April 2

Local media source Imagen del Golfo reported that state health officials recorded a 15% increase in disease over an unspecified period in the highland areas of Veracruz, which includes La Gloria. The increase was primarily due to higher levels of upper respiratory disease and gastroenteritis. Specifically, officials noted an increase in pneumonia and bronchial pneumonia cases. Health officials attributed the increase to seasonal climate changes.

April 6

Veratect reported local health officials declared a health alert due to a respiratory disease outbreak in La Gloria, Perote Municipality, Veracruz State, Mexico.  Sources characterized the event as a "strange" outbreak of acute respiratory infection, which led to bronchial pneumonia in some pediatric cases. According to a local resident, symptoms included fever, severe cough, and large amounts of phlegm. Health officials recorded 400 cases that sought medical treatment in the last week in La Gloria, which has a population of 3,000; officials indicated that 60% of the town’s population (approximately 1,800 cases) has been affected. No precise timeframe was provided, but sources reported that a local official had been seeking health assistance for the town since February.

Residents claimed that three pediatric cases, all under two years of age, died from the outbreak. However, health officials stated that there was no direct link between the pediatric deaths and the outbreak; they stated the three fatal cases were "isolated" and "not related" to each other.

Residents believed the outbreak had been caused by contamination from pig breeding farms located in the area. They believed that the farms, operated by Granjas Carroll, polluted the atmosphere and local water bodies, which in turn led to the disease outbreak. According to residents, the company denied responsibility for the outbreak and attributed the cases to "flu." However, a municipal health official stated that preliminary investigations indicated that the disease vector was a type of fly that reproduces in pig waste and that the outbreak was linked to the pig farms. It was unclear whether health officials had identified a suspected pathogen responsible for this outbreak.

Local health officials had implemented several control measures in response to the outbreak. A health cordon was established around La Gloria. Officials launched a spraying and cleaning operation that targeted the fly suspected to be the disease vector. State health officials also implemented a vaccination campaign against influenza, although sources noted physicians ruled out influenza as the cause of the outbreak. Finally, officials announced an epidemiological investigation that focused on any cases exhibiting symptoms since 10 March.

This information was available in our web portal to all clients, including CDC and multiple US state and local public health authorities.

April 16

Veratect reported the Oaxaca Health Department (SSO) indicated that an unspecified number of atypical pneumonia cases were detected at the Hospital Civil Aurelio Valdivieso in Reforma, Oaxaca State, Mexico.  No information was provided about symptoms or treatment for the cases.  NSS Oaxaca reported that rumors were circulating that human coronavirus was spreading at the hospital; sources did not provide any response to these statements from the hospital or health officials.   

Laboratory samples were sent to Mexico City for analysis; results were expected to be released sometime next week.  According to NSS Oaxaca, health officials had intensified preventive measures aimed at mitigating further spread of the disease.  Sources reported that the SSO also implemented a sanitary cordon around the hospital.         

This information was pushed to CDC and several US state and local public health authorities in an email alert notification provided by Veratect.

April 20

Veratect was urgently asked to provide access to the VeraSight Global platform on 20 April by a client in the US public health community, and indicated they had received word from their counterparts in Canada that Mexican authorities had requested support.  This client speculated whether notification of all southern U.S. border states’ public health authorities should be done and were confused as to why the CDC had not issued an advisory.  Veratect contacted the CDC Emergency Operations Center to sensitize them about the situation in Mexico. CDC indicated they were already dealing with the crisis of recently detected H1N1 swine influenza in California and possibly Texas.

April 21

Veratect reported the Oaxaca Health Department (SSO) confirmed two adults died from atypical pneumonia at the Hospital Civil Aurelio Valdivieso in Oaxaca, Oaxaca State, Mexico.  One of the cases was a 39-year-old female; the other case was an adult male of unspecified age.  After the deaths, the hospital established a quarantine in the emergency room due to initial concerns that avian influenza was responsible for the cases.  However, the SSO subsequently stated that neither avian influenza nor coronaviruses, including that which causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), were the source of infection.  Additionally, the SSO denied the cases represented an epidemic.  According to local sources, the SSO indicated that the atypical pneumonia cases were caused by an unspecified bacterial pathogen and were treatable with antibiotics.  Sources indicated a total of 16 additional patients exhibited signs of respiratory infection; none of these patients exhibited complications.          

Veratect sources indicated the 39-year-old female was treated at the hospital for five days before dying on 13 April.  This case was reportedly immunocompromised; in addition to acute respiratory symptoms, she also had diabetes and diarrhea.  The SSO contacted 300 people that had been in contact with the woman; sources stated that between 33-61 contacts exhibited symptoms of respiratory disease, but none showed severe complications.  The SSO characterized the incident as an "isolated case;" they noted that over 5,000 cases of pneumonia occur annually in Oaxaca. 

Another local source reported the SSO launched surveillance measures in the former residential areas of the two fatal cases and in other targeted geographic areas.  No additional information was provided regarding the second fatal case at the hospital.   

Veratect reported that the Oaxaca State Congress Permanent Committee on Health had undertaken an investigation into the cases.  The committee inspected the Hospital Civil Aurelio Valdivieso on 20 April.  The director of the medical school at the University Autónoma "Benito Juárez" de Oaxaca (UABJO), along with other medical academics, publicly requested that national health authorities investigate the cases of atypical pneumonia.  No information was provided indicating that national health authorities plan to investigate the matter.  The director of the medical school also requested the SSO furnish evidence showing that the cases were negative for avian influenza, SARS, and other severe pathogens; his request was echoed by readers commenting on an online user forum.         

Veratect also reported the National Ministry of Health issued a health alert due to a significant increase in influenza cases during the spring season in Mexico.  Officials indicated that there have been 14 influenza outbreaks throughout the country.  The most heavily affected states are Baja California, Chihuahua, Distrito Federal (Mexico City), Hidalgo, Tlaxcala, and Veracruz.  Local case counts were not provided. 

Officials stated that 4,167 probable cases of influenza, 313 of which were confirmed, have been reported throughout the country in 2009.  Case counts for suspected and confirmed influenza cases have tripled in 2009 as compared to the equivalent time period in 2008.  The National Institute of Respiratory Diseases recorded two fatal cases of influenza in 2009, but specific dates and locations were not provided.   

Health officials stated they were unsure precisely why the incidence of influenza had increased.  However, they believed the increased presence of influenza B, in combination with influenza A, was a contributing factor.  In response, officials advised anyone exhibiting influenza symptoms to avoid self-medication and seek medical care immediately.  Officials had also enhanced epidemiological surveillance for influenza.  Lastly, health officials had focused efforts on providing antiviral medications and influenza vaccinations to the most vulnerable segments of the population.  According to the Mexican Ministry of Health, 44.3% of the national population was vaccinated against influenza in 2005-2006.

Veratect sensitized the International Federation of Red Cross who in turn requested broader access be provided to the Pan-American Disaster Response Unit (PADRU).  Veratect moved to notify several US state and local public health authorities, providing the caveat the situation in Mexico remained unclear due to pending laboratory results.  Veratect reached out to World Health Organization (WHO) operations, informing them the Veratect team was on an alert posture and available for situational awareness support.  They indicated they and their subordinate, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) were now aware of the situation but had no further information.  Veratect also extended contact to the British Columbia Center for Disease Control and offered assistance in tracking the events in Mexico.  All contacts indicated laboratory results were pending.

April 22

Veratect reported the Oaxaca Health Department (SSO) indicated 16 employees at the Hospital Civil Aurelio Valdivieso in Oaxaca, Oaxaca State, Mexico had contracted respiratory disease.  However, the SSO denied these cases were connected to the recently identified cases of atypical pneumonia at the hospital.  No information was provided indicating how many employees work at the hospital or whether the number of respiratory disease cases was higher than average.  The source reported that "fear" persisted among hospital physicians concerning the possible presence of a deadly bacteria or virus circulating in the hospital.  One anonymous hospital employee criticized hospital management as "unfair" for not providing clear information regarding the first fatal atypical pneumonia case.

An additional source reported the cause of the atypical pneumonia cases remained unknown; it stated that bacteria or virus could have caused the cases.  In contrast, according to an 18 April report, the SSO indicated that the atypical pneumonia cases were caused by an unspecified bacterial pathogen and were treatable with antibiotics.  The reason for this discrepancy was unclear at this time.

The Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (IMSS), a national health entity, had now joined the SSO in responding to the cases; reports did not indicate the Mexican National Ministry of Health had joined in the response efforts.  The IMSS extended the sanitary cordon surrounding the hospital.  Patients exhibiting flu-like symptoms would be sent to the hospital’s epidemiology department for further study.  IMSS instructed physicians to hospitalize respiratory disease patients immediately if they meet certain standards for severity of symptoms.  Lastly, the hospital’s emergency room would remain closed for an additional 15 days so that cleaning and preventive disinfection could be carried out.

Veratect also reported the Mexican Ministry of Health indicated that an "unusual" outbreak of laboratory-confirmed influenza caused five deaths from 17-19 April 2009 in Mexico City, Mexico.  The deaths occurred at the following three hospitals: el Hospital de la Secretaría de Salud (2), el Institute Nacional de Enfermedades Respiratorias (2), and el Hospital Ángeles del Pedregal (1).  According to unofficial sources, the fatal case count was higher than that provided by officials.  There were currently 120 influenza cases hospitalized throughout Mexico City.  National health officials indicated that influenza vaccines were sold out in Mexico City and that they were attempting to acquire additional supplies of the vaccine.   

At this point, the Mexican Health Secretary reportedly stated there was an influenza epidemic in Mexico City and throughout the rest of the county.  In response to the cases, the official stated health authorities would launch a public awareness and vaccination campaigns.  He stated that 400,000 vaccines would be administered, primarily to medical staff; it was unclear whether these efforts would be focused on Mexico City or any other geographic area.  Health officials also ordered the provision of special masks, gloves, and gowns for medical personnel that were in contact with influenza cases.  

A total of 13 fatal cases of influenza were reported in Mexico City in the past three weeks.  However, several other media sources reported that the 13 deaths were recorded since 18 March 2009; the reason for this discrepancy was unclear.  Sources reported a total of 20 fatal cases of influenza throughout Mexico over the disputed timeframe.  The other cases were located in San Luis Potosí (4), Baja California (2), and Oaxaca (1).  The Director of Epidemiology at the National Center for Epidemiological Surveillance and Disease Control characterized the outbreak as "quite unusual."

No information was provided indicating that the strain of influenza itself was unusual.  Rather, several sources indicated that it was "unusual" to record this many fatal influenza cases during this time of year.  Influenza cases normally peak from October to February, while these cases had occurred during Mexico’s spring season.

Canada announced a national alert for travelers returning from Mexico with respiratory disease, beginning a campaign of public media announcements. Potentially ill contacts were identified returning from Mexico and isolated in Canada.  Internet blogs begin to spin up.  CDC indicates concern about the events unfolding in Mexico.  Veratect sensitizes the US community physician social network managed by Ozmosis.

April 23

Veratect reported the Secretary General of the Oaxaca Ministry of Health Workers Union confirmed that a doctor and a nurse from the Hospital Civil Aurelio Valdivieso in Oaxaca, Oaxaca State, Mexico were under observation for suspected "atypical" pneumonia.  This contradicted statements made by the Oaxaca Health Department (SSO) on 22 April that 16 hospital employees contracted respiratory disease, but none of the cases exhibited atypical pneumonia. 

The union official stated that a review by the Oaxaca State Board of Medical Arbitration indicated that the hospital faced serious difficulties caused by overcrowding; he stated that overcrowded conditions created a "breeding ground" for the spread of various epidemics.  According to the official, the hospital has 120 beds but the number of patients hospitalized had at times surpassed 240.       

Other sources reported that the Department of Livestock, Fisheries, Rural Development, and Feed (SAGARPA) declared on 20 April that Oaxaca, Mexico was free of avian influenza.  SAGARPA stated that authorities should remain vigilant in monitoring for the disease among birds.  

Canadian local health officials stated that a Rouge Valley resident with influenza-like illness was being monitored at Scarborough Centenary Hospital in Scarborough, Ontario.  The precaution was being taken in accordance with an alert issued by the Ministry of Health asking hospitals to watch for severe respiratory illnesses in travelers returning from Mexico.  Despite the warning, the Ministry had indicated that evidence is not suggestive of a novel pathogen or influenza strain, according to the source.  A representative for the Rouge Valley Health System stated that this case is being monitored related to the alert.  The source did not specifically indicate symptoms or that the person had traveled to Mexico.  No additional information regarding the case, including age or health status, was reported.   

The source stated that hospital employees were asking any patients admitted to the hospital if they had recently traveled to Mexico, which according to the source was a popular tourist destination for Durham-region residents.

Additional Canadian sources indicated Southlake Regional Health Centre officials treated a patient with influenza-like illness (ILI) who recently returned from Mexico.  The Ministry of Health recently notified Southlake, in addition to health units across the country, that an outbreak of severe respiratory disease was affecting areas of Mexico; ill travelers returning from that region with ILI symptoms were encouraged to be monitored.  Sources did not provide any specific information about the case, including age or current treatment status.  Information regarding the individual’s travel to Mexico was also not provided, including destinations and duration of time in country.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) noted that an Ontario resident who returned from Mexico on 22 March experienced severe respiratory illness, but has fully recovered and was not considered connected to the current situation.  Veratect recently reported on 30 March that a public official from Cornwall, Ontario was hospitalized with an unknown illness following a trip to Mexico; however, it is unclear if the cases are related, or if this was the case referenced by PHAC officials.   

Veratect assesses the situation and notes the following:

Affected areas:

Oaxaca, Distrito Federal, San Luis Potosí, Baja California

Distance to nearest international airport:

•    Oaxaca airport, located approximately 150 miles from Reforma, is connected via non-stop air traffic to Houston
•    Mexico City (Distrito Federal) airport is connected via non-stop air traffic to many cities in the US, Canada, Europe and Latin America, with the most outbound traffic to Los Angeles, Frankfurt, Houston, Dallas, and Amsterdam
•    San Luis Potosí airport is connected via non-stop air traffic to Dallas and Houston
•    Mexicali airport in Baja California is connected via non-stop traffic to Los Angeles
•    Veracruz airport is connected via non-stop air traffic to Houston

Large mass gatherings:

Semana Santa (April  ~April 3 – 12, Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday), which is Mexico’s second largest holiday.  Mexico’s population is approximately 90% Catholic, which results in substantial population migration patterns during this time period.  For instance, in Ixtapalapa (in Mexico City), one million people visit for Semana Santa.  Other well-known sites for the holiday include Pátzcuaro, San Cristobal de las Casas (Chiapas), and Taxco.  Veratect notes substantial population migration has just occurred that could facilitate the spread of respiratory disease.

Civil Unrest:

The recent surge in organized crime and drug-related violence in Mexico, including homicides, kidnappings, extortion, and theft, has disproportionately impacted Mexican states along the Pacific Coast and U.S.-Mexico border.  This factor may confound situational awareness of respiratory disease in Mexico and contribute to problems in epidemiological investigation and response measures.  Baja California is one of five states within this region that currently accounts for more than 75 percent of Mexico’s drug-related homicides, and has recorded high levels of drug seizures and police corruption cases. Veracruz, a state with high drug cartel activity in the Gulf of Mexico, has recorded little violence, while the state of Oaxaca to the southwest, recently recorded the assassination of a political party leader. Mexico City, in the center of the country, recently arrested a major drug cartel leader, and recorded few homicides this month. The levels of unrest in Hidalgo, San Luis Potosi, and Tlaxcala, however, are very low, and have not reported a single homicide related to organized crime in the past month.

Veratect issues notification to additional public health authorities in two states.  Veratect reaches out to the Pan American Health Organization emergency operations team but is unable to establish contact.  Veratect notes no publicly available English language reporting from ProMED, HealthMap, FluNET, CDC, ECDC, or WHO about the unfolding events in Mexico.  Many of Veratect’s clients, including Canadian, ask why an alert has not been issued by the US to sensitize their healthcare community.

April 24

Veratect continues to process a dramatic increase in reporting on the situation in Mexico.

WHO requests access to the Veratect system.  Veratect is aware of laboratory samples from Mexico are positive for “swine flu” H1N1, a novel virus.  World media are now aware of the situation in Mexico.  CDC issues a press statement, as does WHO.

Veratect notifies the private US clinical laboratory community and activates a Twitter feed (twitter.com/veratect) to enable more rapid updating of information.


April 25, 2009: World Health Organization “viruses have mutated”

This has the potential to cause problems around the world.  Not a time to worry but certainly something we should be concerned about.  The economic impacts of this virus and the human suffering for some countries could be quite dramatic.  The big question is whether it mutates into something worse.  Nobody knows.  So, a lot of questions remain as to what happens next. 



Hiram Diaz, 8, left, gives his 6-year-old sister Adely Diaz a ride on the pegs of his bicycle while wearing protective masks near the market where their parents own a store in Mexico City, Saturday, April 25, 2009. Mexico is struggling with a new strain of swine flu that has killed 68 and sickened more than 1,000. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a "public health emergency of international concern." (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Julio Cortez)


GENEVA — An outbreak of swine flu in Mexico and the United States is a quickly evolving situation that has "pandemic potential," the head of the World Health Organization said Saturday before an emergency meeting of flu experts.

 “We are very, very concerned,” World Health Organization spokesman Thomas Abraham said. “We have what appears to be a novel virus and it has spread from human to human … It’s all hands on deck at the moment.”

Mexico City mayor cancels all public events for 10 days to try to contain swine flu outbreak, AP reports.

WHO Director-General Chan says it may change global pandemic alert later today after emergency meeting.

WHO Director-General Chan says it is premature to issue travel advisories at this time, will hold emergency meeting later today –

WHO Director-General Chan says it is unclear if swine flu will develop into a pandemic.

WHO Director-General Chan says the swine flu situation is evolving quickly

Newspaper Reforma says the chief of the Mexico’s antropologic museum died of swine flu; had direct contact with Obama few weeks ago

The quarantine station of Narita decided to use thermographic imaging to check the temperatures of passengers arriving from Mexico.

Japan is on alert because the swine flu outbreak; Narita airport will check the health of every passenger flying from Mexico City.

April 25, 2009: 2 AM :) Finals are over!!!!!!

  Finals are finished!  Won’t know grades until next Wednesday or Thursday.  Now I have a couple of weeks off.