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In Argentina, swine flu has killed more people than in any country outside of the United States. That's had public health officials scrambling and it's hurt an economy already reeling from the worldwide economic crisis.

One sector that's been especially battered is Argentina's vibrant theater industry, Latin America's richest, with hundreds of venues. Especially hard hit has been children's theater, which is just now trying to get back on its feet.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Buenos Aires.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

JUAN FORERO: The children are tiny, some only three or four years old. But they learn early here, in a country with a long rich history of theater. And so here they are under the big top for a swashbuckling production of "Zorro."

(Soundbite of music)

FORERO: It features live horses, plenty of slapstick and lots of sword fights.

(Soundbite of performance)

FORERO: The crowd is enthusiastic, but only half the 800 seats are filled. Welcome to theater in Argentina in the age of swine flu.

(Soundbite of a crying infant)

FORERO: Winter has been tough here in the Southern Hemisphere and the flu has hit hard. More than 160 have died, topping Mexico, where the epidemic began.

(Soundbite of a child coughing)

FORERO: The Gutierrez Children's Hospital has seen more children with swine flu than anywhere else in this country of 40 million. Dr. Eduardo Lopez is chief of the medical department and one of the country's top epidemiologists. He says the disease spread here after a teenage Argentine returned from a trip to Florida.

Dr. EDUARDO LOPEZ (Gutierrez Children's Hospital): The virus spread very easily and with a high efficacy. We estimate, and I agree with the health ministry, that at least 100,000 people were affected.

FORERO: He says the worst, though, has passed, and Dr. Lopez says that's due to a public health campaign. Winter vacations for schoolchildren were extended from two weeks to four, and Argentines were urged to avoid public spaces. That's been especially tough on the restaurants, cafes, tango clubs and museums of this cosmopolitan European-style metropolis. But it's been particularly painful for theater, where July is the top ticket-generating month.

Carlos Rottemberg owns seven theaters. He says theaters closed for 10 days and that ticket sales plummeted.

Mr. CARLOS ROTTEMBERG (Owner, Multiteatro): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Rottemberg says swine flu hit just when theaters were gearing up with investments, with more productions to cope with the high season. Now, he says, 2009 may be a wash.

Four flights down from his office in the Multiteatro, people formed a line to see a play about relationships, "The Way Things Are." It's been critically acclaimed and would have run late into the year. Now it's about to close.

Gaston Martinez is a fan of the theater who's worried about the flu, but he says he had to go to see this play.

Mr. GASTON MARTINEZ (Theatergoer): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Yes, we're all worried, he said. But he also said rumors had generated panic. And if the proper precautions are taken, Martinez said there's no problem.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Martinez and a friend, like everyone else in line, had to lather their hands with disinfectant after handing their tickets to a ticket-taker.

(Soundbite of a song)

FORERO: But as the curtain rose and music for the play began, only a quarter of the seats were taken. Argentina is a country accustomed to sharp ups and downs. The theater has thrived throughout, even through economic crises and military dictatorships. But the flu is another story.

Daniela Meroni is like any typical middle-class resident here. She goes to the theater once a week and she often takes her little boy.

Ms. DANIELA MERONI (Theatergoer): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Meroni says she has a long list of plays and shows she wants to see, but she's afraid of getting sick. The show may go on, but she says she's not ready to go back.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Buenos Aires.

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