Public Health Emergency Declared In Wake Of Swine Flu

The federal government has declared a public health emergency as officials continue to monitor cases of sickness believed to be a strain of swine flu. Already, more than 100 people have died in Mexico and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports at least 20 cases in the U.S. NPR's Luis Clemens discusses the health crisis and Mexico's dramatic response.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We have a couple of fast moving stories we're following. In a few minutes we'll hear about the dramatic steps domestic automakers are taking to survive this week. But first, we want to talk about the swine flu outbreak that is causing dramatic steps in Mexico, and has been identified in the U.S. The World Health Organization is calling the Mexico-U.S. outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. The outbreak caused mass to be canceled across Mexico yesterday, along with most social events. Here to tell us more is TELL ME MORE's own planning editor Luis Clemens, who has lived in and reported from Mexico for most of the last decade and until recently maintained a residence there. He is here with me in the studio. Thanks for coming in.

LUIS CLEMENS: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: Set the scene for us. What it's like in Mexico City? You've been talking to people all weekend.

CLEMENS: It's almost unthinkable. It's desolate, is what I hear from friends and family. Mexico City is not only the Federal government capital. It's the business capital. It's the academic capital. It's the social capital. In the U.S. an American could go their entire lives without going to Washington, D.C. In Mexico, it's almost unthinkable to go an entire life without going to the capital. It's New York, D.C., L.A., Chicago, all rolled into one. And what you have is complete inactivity. The mayor of Mexico City is in fact literally discussing at this moment whether or not to order a complete shut down of all economic activity in the city. It's dramatic.

MARTIN: And already, as we mentioned that the mass was canceled and also soccer games and you know, most of the bars and restaurants were closed but school. School is already scheduled to be closed for how long?

CLEMENS: Well, through May sixth at this point in Mexico City. In neighboring Mexico State, in San Luis Potosi. This obviously complicates things for parents who work. So, many friends and family of mine were scrambling to figure out over the weekend, well, what are we going to do with our children? It's all a very fragile system. Obviously if you can't send your kids to school, well, someone's got to take care of them. And you're afraid of going to work because you might get sick. I think though the one thing, the one image that captures what is a sensation in Mexico City more than anything is empty soccer stadiums.

You have soccer matches played throughout the country each weekend and this time they were playing before empty stadiums. No one was allowed to gather. That's unthinkable.

MARTIN: There have been a few reported cases identified in the U.S. And in those cases, for example, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was asking people to exercise common sense. They're saying if you don't feel well, if you have flu-like symptoms, stay home, don't go to work. What are Mexican officials advising people about work?

CLEMENS: Well at this point, as I mentioned, Mexico City's mayor is literally considering with his team whether or not to suggest a complete shut down of activity. What they're talking about, at this point, what many employers are telling their employees is work from home if you can. Take a day off, let's see how this settles. Let's see how this plays out.

MARTIN: What are your folks telling you about they feel that Mexican officials are responding to this crisis. And I don't know what, exactly what word to use because on the one hand we're been cautioned not to overemphasize, you know, panic and things of that sort. On the other hand, if - these measures are rather extraordinary. So there is an aura of crisis about it. So how would people feel that the officials are responding?

CLEMENS: You know, I think the Mexican newspaper Milenio captured it best in their headline when they said, there's a disease, there's a cure, and there's psychosis. What you have is a rather incredible and dramatic reaction to what is a curable disease. I mean, you have to consider that Mexico is in the midst of a civil war against drug lords. Ten thousand people have been killed since President Calderon took power. But that has never had as dramatic a reaction in keeping people inside their houses, away from churches, away from soccer matches, away from bars and restaurants. What people are telling me is that there is an actual sense that people are listening to the authorities, taking these cautions very seriously, perhaps too seriously.

A friend was telling me her niece went to the doctor yesterday because she had sniffles. And the doctor told her, well, you're at least the 200th patient I've seen today. So people are taking these warnings very seriously, perhaps too seriously.

MARTIN: Is there any precedent for this?

CLEMENS: You know…

MARTIN: Is there a public health emergency abroad concern?

CLEMENS: You know, it's interesting you mention it. Just yesterday they took out a statue of Jesus Christ from the Cathedral in Mexico City, a statue called (unintelligible) Christ of Health. And last time he was actually paraded outside the Cathedral was 1691, during a small pox outbreak. So that's probably the closest public health parallel one could draw in terms of the level of fear and disturbance to the normal life in Mexico City.

MARTIN: Is there any sense of how long this lasts? What's the natural course of this kind of outbreak?

CLEMENS: Obviously, health officials in Mexico City, and really throughout the world are trying to contain the cases that they identify. But given that this has already spread as far as New Zealand, as Israel, as Canada, et cetera, I don't know that I can answer that question. It clearly is very much on the minds of the Mexican officials. And they're working hard by preventing these mass gatherings, preventing the disease from spreading further.

MARTIN: It's also an early test of the relationship, the cross-border relationship with U.S. national security and health officials. And I just wonder, very briefly, if you have any sense of how they feel that relationship is going. These are all very new relationships. These people are all very new in their posts on the U.S. side.

CLEMENS: Well, it's interesting because in fact they sent lab samples to Canada, not to the U.S. And from what I've been reading some of the U.S. government officials felt they might have been caught flat-footed.

MARTIN: Luis Clemens is TELL ME MORE's planning editor. He recently lived in Mexico and has reported from there for most of the last decade. He joined us from our studios in Washington. Thanks Luis.

CLEMENS: Happy to be here.

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