A panel of experts commended international efforts to contain the H1N1 influenza and noted the severity of the virus seems to be less than first perceived. However, at a discussion hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute and Global Health Initiative, the panel warned that the upcoming flu season in the Southern Hemisphere could bring a second, perhaps more dangerous, round of infections.

The Nature of the H1N1 Virus

Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, area manager in health surveillance and disease management at the Pan American Health Organization, discussed the diagnosis of the pandemic and the action taken by the World Health Organization (WHO).

In evaluating a virus, Barbosa explained, "the numbers of infected is less important than the behavior of the virus." The Level 5 rating it gave H1N1 was selected because the virus met the criteria of a presence in two countries, not necessarily because it was seen as extremely lethal. While over 2,000 individuals have tested positive for the flu, the rate of transmission appears to be slow. (For more information, see Barbosa's PowerPoint presentation.)

The virus seems mild for now, but should continue to be monitored. With the arrival of flu season in the Southern Hemisphere in June, the risks of infection or co-infection, or contracting H1N1 and a normal flu, are real, he emphasized. The Spanish Flu of 1918, for instance, appeared mild at first, but killed 50 million people several months later during the normal flu season.

Mexico and the H1N1 Virus: Tough but Necessary Action

Katherine Bliss, deputy director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, commended the Mexican government's response to the influenza outbreak. Officials at the highest level, including President Felipe Calderón, set the appropriate tone by adopting "difficult but necessary" measures to prevent the spread of the new virus by shutting schools, workplaces, restaurants, and public arenas.

The full implications of the health crisis remain to be seen in the country, Bliss suggested, but already the political, economic and social ramifications of the outbreak are noticeable:

  • Opposition political parties, anxious to gain support in the summer midterm elections, are questioning the federal government's response to the outbreak.
  • Internationally, Argentina, Peru, Cuba suspended flights to Mexico, while China quarantined all travelers arriving from the country.
  • The country has been slammed economically: the dramatic drop in tourism revenue, Mexico's third largest form of income, cost the country $2.3 billion in the first week after the outbreak.
  • The closure of restaurants and discotheques has hit businesses especially hard.
  • The shutdown of all schools has demanded that more workers stay home with children instead of working, leading to a loss in income.
  • Suspicion of Mexican pork has caused Mexican agricultural exports to decline, though experts doubt any linkage between the virus and consuming pork products.
  • Many Mexicans moved their social life to the Internet: the new "Cumbia de la Influenza" music video has received thousands of hits on YouTube.com

Barbosa attributed the severity of the crisis in Mexico to the limited access to health care. Most of the sick in Mexico did not seek, or were not prescribed, the antiviral treatment in the first 80 hours, the only time in which the medicine is effective. Authorities also did not recognize the new influenza until 3-4 weeks after it first emerged because the symptoms were mild and it appeared to be a second wave of the normal flu season.

Rapid Response in the International Community

Bliss applauded the swift and coordinated approaches of the international community to the outbreak, arguing it was possible in part because of the preparedness drills and plans that governments put in place after the outbreak of SARS in 2003. After the H1N1 outbreak:

  • The United States and Canada quickly joined Mexico's efforts to monitor the virus and began to share information at all levels of government.
  • The World Bank extended a $205 million credit line to Mexico to assist in its emergency efforts.
  • Despite placing Mexican tourists in an involuntary quarantine, China offered $5 million in technical assistance.

The strongest cooperation, added Barbosa, was the monitoring of the virus and sharing of information. Because the virus has a week-long incubation period, suspending travel or examining travelers upon entry into a country does not stop the spread of the virus. Most countries instead monitored incidences of the virus closely, allowing the WHO to track and analyze the influenza.

Now What? The Future of the Virus

Barbosa emphasized that governments should continue to monitor the virus. There is no way to predict its course, but governments should stay vigilant to prevent a second more dangerous outbreak.

On an individual level, avoiding pork and wearing face masks, "while great for selling newspapers," will not prevent the spread of the virus, according to Barbosa. Rather, he recommended that individuals wash their hands regularly and call a doctor's office if they suspect they have the virus to request advice before they visit.

By Katie Putnam
Edited by Andrew Selee