Update from Mexico City: Swine Flu, Fear and Facts

A man in a Mexico City church prays with a "tapaboca" -- face mask. <sub>Photo by Flickr user Alma Rodriguez Ayala.</sub>

A man in a Mexico City church prays with a "tapaboca" -- face mask. (Photo by Flickr user Alma Rodriguez Ayala.)

So, it’s only been two days since we first heard about the swine flu outbreak in Mexico City, and wow, how the news has changed. Swine flu (or, most accurately, the swine/bird/human flu) has been identified in several other countries.

Personally, life goes on the same for us. Yesterday, the bars and restaurants on our little street were crowded and noisy. The paleta store next door had its typical steady stream of visitors craving frozen fruits on a stick. We had a terrific Argentinian lunch with friends.

The main differences for me has been:

1. Hygiene: I’m seeing more people in face masks than usual. I’m washing my hands more than normal. I’m not wearing a mask, but I’m also not going out in any crowds (per usual).

2. Icky Facebook:  Not fun during a flu epidemic — if there’s any hysteria to be had, it’s on social networks. So, I’m taking a Facebook hiatus for now, since I only use Facebook if it’s fun. My last post was to share this link from Dr. Marc Siegel: The Most Powerful Virus Is Fear Not Flu.

3. Ambivalence. When the news first broke, I had no idea what to think, although life in Mexico never fails to surprise me. I’m still quite mystified by the whole thing — it’s not every day that you find yourself living amid a flu epidemic. But, I am not panicked, I am ambivalent. I do not feel like I am at (or was) at high risk of catching the virus. I also know I have access to excellent medical care if anything were to happen. But I feel bad for the people who have lost loved ones.

4. Annoyance. My two cents: Closing the border with Mexico (I have no idea if anyone is seriously considering this, I just see fear-mongerers proposing this idea online) would solve nothing, but it would be an interesting experiment. It wouldn’t slow the spread of flu: Viruses don’t follow international protocols and stop floating across cramped borders because people no longer are crossing, including viruses that may exist in the border area’s significant wild bird and hog population. But it would slow international commerce on a grand scale and have economic and cultural ramifications no one can predict.

So, yeah, basically life goes on the same.

*Steps on soap box*

Now, for my unsolicited advice. As a person who used to report on diseases as a professional medical journalist (and now edits medical information of a wide variety), I’m acutely aware of the pressures put on journalists from editors and producers to ‘sex’ up a story, to scare the heck out of people.

Keep in mind that this is what’s going on right now, to some degree. And as Dr. Marc’s article points out, even health organizations are not immune to fear, and have sparked useless hysteria by over-reacting and misjudging the situation.

You can imagine how that hysteria is compounded when it gets in the hands of journalists.

But, yes, people are sick and some are dying from this flu. But illness and death is a human universal.

So, as someone speaking from the epidemic’s ground zero, and not freaking out, my advice: The best way to mitigate your risk is read everything with a grain of salt, and educate yourself about the facts. And if you do get sick, follow the recommended steps (included in that link). This post from an infectious disease expert might also help you feel a bit better.

*Steps down from soapbox*

I’m off to enjoy my Sunday in sunny, beautiful Mexico City, folks.

14 thoughts on “Update from Mexico City: Swine Flu, Fear and Facts

  1. Happy Camper says:

    Very thoughtful post. (most US-based blogs argue the typical nonsense about ‘illegals’ being the culprits, etc). Came across your blog looking for info on this matter. I live in nyc, but family is in d.f. it sucks that this is happening in Mexico. when it rains, it pours.

    be cool and be safe.


  2. nevenera says:

    Thanks for this interesting post. My thoughts are with you and those that are facing this emergency.

    I hope the outbreak is brought under control soon!

    Take care of yourself and keep safe!

    I would love to link to this on my post, please let me know if that would be OK

  3. angelbc says:

    Thanks for being a voice of reason amidst all this fear and paranoia. Yes, there’s a nasty bug floating around. No, we’re not going doing the mexican, non-unionized version of “Outbreak” or anything close to that in Mexico City.

    Let’s see how this develops

  4. ahrcanum says:

    It just seems like the warnings were slow in being released resulting in less time to id the bug and maybe come up with a vaccine or preventative measure.

  5. DKN says:

    I find a sense of humor works in times like this. I like to mock hysteria, personally. This flu is deadly for the vulnerable, which a vast majority of us are NOT. Hello. I’ve been really sick the last few days with a bad cold and I have to admit I wondered if my coughing on the train would freak people out this morning since the swine flu has reared its ugly head in Queens. My lungs managed to behave themselves, though. I was lucky to have a doting boyfriend wait on me hand and foot all weekend.

  6. Joy says:

    Hey DKN, thanks for the comment. One clarification: It’s actually affecting young adults who are healthy. Apparently we’re so healthy that our immune systems over-react and cause really potent pneumonia (flooded lungs). So that’s the weird thing about this, and the late date — Mexico normally has this many flu cases, but earlier in the year, and affecting more vulnerable groups of patients.

  7. DKN says:

    OH! I’ve misunderstood what I’ve read, then. The teenagers who have it here are probably going to be fine, they’ve said. So the people who have died there have been normally healthy young adults?

  8. Joy says:

    In Queens, yes, the cases were mild.

    In Mexico, it’s more deadly, but also among normally healthy young people.

    What I don’t know is how poor these people were, how much access they had to medical care. Making even mild flu more deadly, you know?

    I haven’t seen much info about that (but I’m also starting to tune it all out).

  9. DKN says:

    Yeah, I would guess that poverty/access to health care has to be a factor there. And I always assume with the flu that kids and seniors are always the most vulnerable. People die from the regular flu here, I’m sure there, too. But I guess the regular flu is kind of boring. I’m glad to hear life is going on as normal for you guys, though. I haven’t really paid very close attention since I’ve been pretty high on cold pills the last few days, only read a few things here and there and none of them really say the same thing about the victims, just RUN FOR YOUR LIFE for the rest of us. lol. Puh-lease.

  10. histerika says:

    I’m also at Mexico City and truly refuse to be under the panic that has everybody in alert, it’s funny and weird how people freaks out whenever somebody sneezes on the bus or subway, they see them as aliens……….. i’m kinda mad about all this thing…. i don’t know what to believe ’cause i think it is a FEAR control plan… but as well people is getting sick around the world….. what to believe??!!

    PS. I haven’t seen anybody sick, any friend or family……

  11. Betty Victory says:

    Thanks for the very thoughtful blog post. I certainly agree that the media needs to tone it down and be more responsible. In this case it will take some time for the CDC and WHO to put all of the facts together. The only things that will be helpful, will be the common sense actions that you mentioned such as hand washing and avoiding crowded areas.

    Dora, I hope you are feeling better soon!

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