Global Health

Sanitation Problems Thwart Mexico's Flu Battle

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Mexico's President Felipe Calderon on Wednesday night encouraged citizens to stay in their homes. Mexico City remains the epicenter of the swine flu outbreak. The lack of water has made sanitation a challenge in many working-class neighborhoods.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The family of a five-year-old girl held her funeral yesterday. Her name was Maria Fernanda Garcia del Carmen(ph). She died in Mexico and authorities there're investigating her death as a possible case of swine flu.

INSKEEP: In this part of the program, we will hear President Obama's explanation for leaving open the border with Mexico. And we'll hear why the World Health Organization raised its alert level.

MONTAGNE: We begin in a country with the most known cases. Mexican officials are closing nonessential government offices and Mexico's president is urging people to stay home.

INSKEEP: All of which came too late for that five-year-old girl. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Mexico City.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Maria Fernanda Garcia del Carmen lived in this greedy working class neighborhood on the northeast side of Mexico City. Her father is the custodian, a boxy brick apartment complex where she lived. Neighbors say the five-year-old had broken her leg and then a few days later started to run high fever. Her parents brought her into a health clinic but the fever continued. Three days later, she went to a nearby children's hospital. They sent her home with a course of paracetamol, and she died later that day.

Ms. DIANA SADIO(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: They treated her terribly, says her neighbor Diana Sadio. She had a fever for three days and the doctor said, if it's not better in three more days, bring her back. They sent her home with just paracetamol, nothing more. That's why she died. Because of her high fever and complaints of aches, Sadio says local health officials are treating Garcia's death as a possible case of swine flu. They've tested three of Garcia's family members and Sadio's aunt who tried to revive the girl with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. They're still waiting for the results.

Sadio says she personally worries a lot about swine flu. But she also doesn't think it makes sense. Everyone is covering their mouths and most of the city is shut down for fear of the virus spreading, but no one else in Garcia's 40-unit apartment complex has gotten sick.

Ms. SADIO: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: No, no one is reporting being sick or feeling bad, she says, no one. Despite questioning what's going on with swine flu and whether it's real, Sadio says her family has started washing the house every day with bleach.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

BEAUBIEN: The federal government is running ads encouraging people to wear masks in public, avoid crowds and frequently wash their hands. But Mexico City has been facing a severe water crisis this year. And in some parts of the capital, washing hands is a luxury. In recent months, some neighborhoods - all of them poor - have been without water service for up to two weeks at the time.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

BEAUBIEN: Iztapalapa is a dusty slum on the far eastern edge of the city. Residents in much of the area get their water from massive tanker trucks called pipas. Concepcion Espinosa(ph) says that pipas haven't come for a week.

Ms. CONCEPCION ESPINOSA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I don't know when it's going to come because this morning I asked the pipa driver, she says. And usually they bring it on Monday or Tuesday. I asked him where he was going with this water, but he didn't know. The 55-year-old Espinosa lives with six members of her extended family. Like everyone else in Mexico City, Espinosa is very aware of swine flu. She says she worries about the outbreak, particularly for the children.

Ms. ESPINOSA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: We are worried because the water is almost finished, she says. I'm looking after my niece's daughter and I don't have enough water to bathe her. One of the actions the government has taken to try to contain the swine flu virus is to increase water deliveries to poor neighborhoods like this one.

City officials have started to release information about where suspected swine flu cases are occurring. Some of them have been in poor neighborhoods. But the City's interior secretary says cases have been found throughout the capital and it's too early to tell if socioeconomic conditions are contributing to the spread of the virus.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

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