Public Health

Swine Flu Eyed Warily In South America

BOGOTA, Colombia — Here in the South American country closest to Mexico, authorities scrambled to stockpile antiviral medication to fight swine flu and told schools to send home children who show up to classes with symptoms of the virus.

So far, no one has been confirmed to be infected in this country of 45 million, though Health Ministry officials have placed nearly 60 people under observation and say a handful of them are suspected of suffering from swine flu.

The deputy health chief in Bogota, Edgar Zambrano, told reporters that several of those placed under observation had arrived in Bogota from Mexico with flu-like symptoms, prompting fears that the virus could get a toe-hold on the continent.

At the Vermont school, a private institution for 1,400 students outside Bogota, teachers who have developed colds are being asked to wear face masks, just in case. Before new Education Ministry guidelines were issued, Vermont administrators also sent parents a written explanation of the pandemic, asking them to keep children home if they become sick.

"The principal is trying to calm people down, but at the same time take these measures," said Maria Consuelo Rojas, a literature teacher at the school. She said media coverage of the illness has sparked alarm in the smallest children, while generating humor among others.

"The parents are not very worried, but the little ones are because of what they see on the news," said Rojas. "They say, 'oh, we are going to die, we are going to die.' It is collective hysteria, but not with the big kids. They joke around about it."

The spread of the virus has sparked headlines across the continent as airport authorities don gloves and face masks, health authorities accelerate imports of anti-viral medicine and increasing numbers of people are placed under observation, suspected of having come down with swine flu. Some leaders, including Peruvian President Alan Garcia, have called on people to temporarily stop greeting others with the customary peck on the cheek.

There have been false alarms — like the 27-year-old Argentine woman who became ill on a cross-continental flight that was diverted to Peru. Health authorities in Lima initially said the woman, who lives in California and had been to Mexico, was infected.

But on Thursday, Health Minister Oscar Ugarte told Reuters the woman was suffering from "a form of influenza as virulent as other cases, but it's not swine flu." Authorities across the continent have yet to identify anyone with the illness.

Still, Peru banned flights from Mexico. Argentina and Cuba, meanwhile, suspended flight to Mexico. In Venezuela, authorities recommended that travelers suspend trips to Mexico and the United States. On Wednesday, authorities in the Venezuelan state of Tachira suspended the importation of pork from neighboring Colombia.

At some airports in Latin America, health authorities look for flu symptoms among visitors from Mexico and, in some cases, the United States. In Chile, they have even installed a fever scanner to screen passengers from Mexico.

Colombia, which is closest to Mexico and offers daily flights from Bogota, is perhaps the country with the most suspected cases of swine flu. More than two dozen are in Bogota, including a boy who had been in contact with an adult who had been in Mexico. Health authorities have set up a special emergency committee that includes state and federal authorities.

"The situation is serious and we should take every precaution," Diego Palacio, the minister of social welfare, told reporters. "That is why as soon as we found out the virus was among us, we convened the emergency committee."

Still, while Colombians are well aware of the pandemic, there appears to be little outward concern — no masks, except for workers at the airport, and no restrictions on public gatherings.

On Thursday evening, Juan Pabon, a barber, stood around in a mostly empty shop in one of Bogota's main commercial districts. But he chuckled when asked if customers were staying away because of fears of the virus.

"I think it's because this is a holiday weekend and people are leaving town," he said. "We were packed this afternoon."

In at least one respect, the effort to stop the spread of swine flu in Mexico is Colombia's gain.

Mexican soccer fans are being deprived of seeing their favorite sport in person — every match this weekend will be played on television but no one will be admitted into stadiums. But two top teams, Mexican clubs, Chivas and San Luis, will play an upcoming match here in Bogota. The doors to the stadium, El Campin, will be open to fans.

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