Mexico And The Swine Flu Blues

oaxaca-paradeLet’s just say it has been a rough few months for Mexico tourism. First, reports of violence between rival drug gangs and Mexican authorities peppered with sensational details of headless bodies and running gun battles had travelers canceling trips to Puerto Vallarta, even though the violence was transpiring hundreds of miles away in border towns like Ciudad Juarez.  Then, on April 25, my third day in Oaxaca, Mexico, the World Health Organization’s Director General declared the swine flu (H1N1) virus a Public Health Emergency, with Mexico City finding itself with the unfortunate epicenter of the outbreak. (Most reports link this new variant of the H1N1 virus to the small town of La Gloria, several hundred miles northeast of Mexico’s capital).  Currently, the World Health Organization says Mexico has 590 confirmed cases and 25 deaths, while the US has 286 confirmed cases, and one death.  Sounds pretty grim, but when you consider Greater Mexico City has a population of 22 million and is the world’s second most populous city, the odds of actually getting sick start to seem pretty remote.  Also, consider that there are 36,000 deaths annually in the US due to influenza.

Then, factor in that six states in Mexico, including popular tourism destinations such as Quintana Roo (Cancun, Playa del Carmen) and Yucatan (Merida) have no reported cases at all, and the numbers say you are safer there than in California, which has 29 reported cases.

In my case, I returned home last Thursday, when swine flu reports were more popular than an Ashton Kutcher tweet.  Just before leaving, life on the streets of Oaxaca, located about 500 miles south of Mexico City, seemed completely normal: young people were making out under shady jacaranda trees, taxi drivers queued near the Cathedral gossiping about sports and women, and street vendors hawked everything from traditional textiles to the questionable opportunity to experience a mild electric shock.  A day earlier, during the height of reports of new outbreaks around the world, I stood amid throngs of locals crowding the main avenue of Avenida Macedonio Alcala for a colorful folkloric street parade.

Granted, half of the locals were wearing masks ranging from surgical masks to Che Guevara kerchiefs, but being Latin America, the desire to talk on mobile phones, eat, drink and laugh meant much of this facial gear ended up slung around necks.  My preventative measures included washing my hands more than usual and not wearing my contacts lenses, so my hands wouldn’t have contact with my eyes. I was also sampling generous amounts of 96 proof local mezcal, which I convinced myself would purge any baddies in my system.

Flying through Mexico City was a different story though, where locals are understandably more concerned and where about three quarters of both locals and foreigners had donned masks, including the young American surfer who sat next to me on the flight home, who had wrapped a T-shirt around his mouth, giving him the appearance of a sun-bleached version of Billy The Kid.

All this isn’t to say the potential threat isn’t serious.  But recent reports suggest most new cases appear to be no more virulent than seasonal flu outbreaks. Another upside is that across the world, and especially in Mexico and the US, the response has been vigorous.  Even though some critics have said Mexican officials acted slowly initially, Mexico’s Minister of Health and President Calderon are now on a full-court press, appearing often on television, explaining measures the country is undertaking to keep the virus in check, which include closing schools, bars, restaurants, stadiums and other places where people gather.  Depending on who you speak to in Mexico, the measure of virtually shutting down much of the country over the public holiday from May 1 until May 6 is either a necessary measure or a draconian boondoogle.  Only time will tell.

In the meantime, keep yourself informed by checking out sites such as the US Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization.  For instance, the WHO is not advocating any travel advisories or restrictions and emphasizes that properly prepared pork presents no danger to humans.  That means two things to me: The potential for stellar Mexico travel deals and just say “Si!” to carnitas tacos.

2 Comments

  1. Edwina Arnold on May 6, 2009 at 7:30 am

    Hi Eric: Finally a writer puts things into perspective having been on the scene. Life in Oaxaca and life in Merida sound the same – no flu – life as usual – great experiences waiting to be enjoyed. Thanks for the update. Edwina

  2. Janine on May 10, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    What a thoughtful report, Eric, nice to find a voice of reason on the Web. We’ve seen such hysteria and bad information, like wearing face masks, which anyone who knows much about the virus will tell you don’t help much.

    Obama’s advice to wash your hands is the most reasonable thing I’ve heard, and your story is a good reminder not to over react and cancel your travel plans (I love Mexico!).

    Visitor’s have suffered Montezuma’s revenge for decades and still enjoyed Mexico. Let’s hope the Swine Flu fear settles down and people stop being afraid to travel to such a wonderful place.

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