Monthly Archives: April 2009

Wigged Out By H1N1 or The Masked Bandit Rides, Again

I’m on an airplane to Detroit.  There may be 6-8 people on board a full flight who are wearing surgical masks.  This is a first for me, and despite the strange looks and at the encouragement of two passengers just behind me who were talking about when they were putting their masks on, I did, too.  There is an assumption that if you are wearing a mask you are sick.  So, the looks were pretty intense as I made my way down the aisle to find my seat mid-cabin.  I can’t imagine hospital personnel wearing these things all day.  There is that warm, moist, almost suffocating feeling of having your nose and mouth covered, a feeling reminiscent of when I was a child breathing in the menthol warm, moist air generated by the vaporizer when I was sick.  The man next to me is going to Detroit to visit his first grandchild, 2 weeks old.  He promised his daughter he would wear a mask, shower and wash his hair before touching the newborn.  How many times did I wash my hands today?

At dinner last night, Marci asked me when was the last time I was in Mexico before she would give me a hug in greeting.  Not since mid-February, I replied.  Then, today in the NY Times I read that the virus could have mutated from bird to pig to human as long as a year ago.  Perhaps it is of the variety that erupts when the weather turns warm, rather than vice versa, I wonder.  We are all preoccupied now and doing anything we can to protect ourselves despite the fact that some health care professionals say the face masks don’t help prevent the illness.  Then, why, I might ask, are they handing out masks all over Mexico and the photos of the health care workers in the Mexican hospitals are all wearing them?

Today is Thursday, one day before the start of a long Mexican holiday weeking leading up to Cinco de Mayo – the Battle of Puebla.  I am on my way to Columbus, Ohio, to visit my friend Sam (Frances) Robbins.  We are going to celebrate our Oaxaca connection by creating our own Cinco de Mayo fiesta.  Perhaps I will make Micheladas.  For certain, we will dine on her Talavera dishes hand made and carried back from our Puebla adventures.  This is the best we can do right now.  Neither of us have plans to be in Mexico in the next month.

My glasses are fogging up.  The flight attendant is serving drinks and snacks.  Do I pass on them or raise my mask to drink?  The dilemmas of travel during influenza.  I pass as she looks at me hesitantly.  What does Joe Biden know?

The Invasion of the Flu Warriors

The question in the NY Times today is Why are Mexicans dying from this new strain of “swine” flu (they couldn’t figure out what else to name it)?  Others (Westerners) who have contracted it are recovering after having a milder bout that set them back a few days.  I have my theories.

Centuries ago when the British and Spanish invaders brought influenza (pig derived) and smallpox to North and South America that decimated indigenous people, the weaponry of germs did the lion’s share to reduce and subjugate populations.  Advanced technology of the time — guns — managed to subdue those remaining.

Read “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “1491” to learn more, if you haven’t already.

With the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521 came the diseases of Europe for which the indigenous population had no immunity from — it was not in their genetic coding.  Hundreds of thousands died from the invasion of germs.   My hunch is that hundreds of years later, despite some intermarriage and some genetic rebalancing, the original gene pool of  disease vulnerability is still prevalent.

Why else would Canadians, Americans, Israelis, Spaniards and Brits who traveled to Mexico and returned with the virus have an easier time of it?  I don’t think the answer lies in the fact that medicine and public health is THAT much better in these countries.   I have traveled to Oaxaca many times and am impressed with their level of medical and dental education and patient care.

Smithfield, the largest hog grower in the U.S., owns 50% of the million + swine herd in Veracruz where it is said this virus originated.  I am reading that downstream pollution could have contributed to this new viral strain.  An indigenous village near the plant washes it clothes and bathes in the same river that passes by this hog farm where wastewater is said to be dumped.  Could this be the source?  Is Smithfield and its Mexican business partner  responsible?  What is the government role in regulating health?  We can ask these same questions in the U.S. with our NC experience monitoring and regulating the hog industry and groundwater pollution here that have been impacted by hog farms and processing plants owned by Smithfield.

Today, I talked with Eric via email.  They are scared.  There have been eight cases diagnosed in Oaxaca.  The state government is talking about closing public buildings.  Oaxaca’s population is primarily indigenous — Zapotec, Mixtec, and other tribal groups.  I would suspect their vulnerability to be high.  Eric will leave his job at the museum to go home to his village if it closes for a time, as will others.  I advised him to buy hand sanitizer and distribute it among his family.  No news of outbreak in Teotitlan del Valle.  I am praying that this flu does not spread to my village and the people I love.

Meanwhile, here at home, the university nursing student who I had helped to secure an internship position in the village clinic this summer has put her plans on hold.  We are sad and disappointed and waiting for the news to shift.

It’s been some time since I’ve written …

Most of you know that I am employed full-time at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing, and when I returned to NC in mid-February after our successful documentary filmmaking workshop, I had been in Mexico five out of the previous 10 weeks.  Okay, so three of those weeks were over the winter holiday break when not much happens.  But there WAS a lot of catching up to do.  I was serving on the search committee to name a new dean of the school, and now this is behind us.  After orchestrating a major scholarship fundraising and celebratory party last week with 250 people in honor of our current dean who is stepping out of office, I am now able to catch my breath.

Mexico is on my mind, especially this week when the news broke yesterday of the Swine Flu possible epidemic centered in Mexico City that has the threat of spreading worldwide.  Don’t panic, the NY Times reports.  81 people dead and 1300 sick to date.  My friend Sheri Brautigam, who just left Teotitlan and was intending to spend some time in M.C. reports on her Facebook page that she’s heading out of town.  Millions of gauze face masks have been distributed to M.C. citizens and a high school in NYC has had flu outbreaks.  It is not known whether anti-viral medication developed for other strains will work on this new one that has mutated from pigs to people.

Ah, sweet Mexico.  My heart cries for you.  Will this have an impact on tourism?  You bet!  The Mexico City airport police are patrolling to keep people who look sick off of airplanes and out of buildings.  This is the connection city to my beloved Oaxaca for many airlines as well as other important tourist destinations around the country.  I was thinking of flying to Mexico City soon and then taking a bus to Puebla and then Oaxaca.  I can’t imagine spending hours on public buses with this public health risk looming.  The optimum plan would be to fly on Continental Airlines through the Houston gateway directly to Oaxaca.

The drug wars have been receded and the health wars are front and center stage.  Mexico is definitely occupying front page news territory for weeks on end.  I was not concerned or afraid of the media hype around the drug environment that is pretty much centered on the border states.  But I am concerned about Swine Flu.  I’m waiting to make my plane reservations for the next trip, hoping that this will dissipate quickly and I can get back to Teotitlan and the people I love and care about soon.

I’d love to hear how the expat communities in and around Mexico City — as well as all over Mexico — are reacting to all of this