Fernando Navarette fingers his blue mouth mask and eyes other customers suspiciously at the juice stand as he orders a special anti-flu cocktail of pineapple, guava and honey. "I want to get the vitamins in me and then get back home," says the 37-year-old graphic designer, carefully keeping his distance. "I don't want to be in the street any longer than necessary and risk bringing the virus into my house. I have young children to worry about."
Fears of getting a killer bug are sweeping across the Mexican capital as reports erupted about an epidemic of swine influenza that is said to have killed dozens in recent weeks. The government ordered all schools and universities in Mexico City shut and advised people to pull their children out of nurseries and avoid busy places such as restaurants, bars and cinemas. Pharmacies rapidly sold out of hygienic masks and vitamin supplements. Many clinics stuck signs on their doors advising they had run out of influenza vaccines. (See pictures from the last outbreak of bird flu.)
News of the flu had been lingering for several days but surged to national attention late Thursday after a televised announcement from Federal Health Minister José Angel Córdova. "With the information obtained this afternoon, we have before us the threat of a new type of influenza," Cordova said, announcing the first total school closures over the urban area of 20 million since the 1985 earthquake. Mexican authorities said there had been 20 deaths confirmed from the virus in recent weeks, mostly healthy adult men and women, who were in groups not normally considered vulnerable. Then panic increased to fever pitch on Friday when the World Health Organization upstaged the Mexican government by saying that 60 deaths may have been caused by the virus. (Check out a story on how long flu immunity lasts.)
Sources concurred that the virus originated from pigs and mutated into some form that jumped to humans. That raised the terrifying prospect that humans could be completely unresistant to it, potentially leading to a pandemic. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 to 1919 killed about 50 million people. The most recent pandemic was the Hong Kong flu that killed about 1 million people from 1968 to 1969. "We are very, very concerned," WHO spokesman Thomas Abraham said, according the AP. "We have what appears to be a novel virus and it has spread from human to human." WHO convened an emergency meeting on Friday and activated money and personnel to dealing with the outbreak. "It's all hands on deck at the moment." Abraham said. (Read a story about the fear of bird flu.)
Mexican President Felipe Calderón cancelled a trip to the northern state of Chihuahua and called his cabinet ministers, state health chiefs and even senior military commanders to an emergency meeting on Friday. The Mexico City government initially had about 400,000 doses of vaccine left after the influenza season, which normally lasts from December to March. However, these were being used exclusively for medical personnel across the nation's hospitals, where hundreds of people with flu symptoms were being treated. The Mexican federal government was also reported to be handing out a million flu vaccines to the public. But it was still unclear if the vaccines would be effective against this new strain.
It was also unclear how much the virus had spread outside of Mexico. At least seven non-lethal cases of a swine virus had been reported in Texas and California (the U.S. cases seem to be susceptible to antiviral treatment; and, in a hopeful note for Mexicans, preliminary tests show 14 samples from Mexico to be identical to the American strain). Canadian officials have also found the swine virus in one tourist returning from Mexico. A Canadian travel advisory Thursday held back from telling people not to go to Mexico but advised Canadians to get flu shots and warned which Mexican states the virus had been detected in, which include Mexico City, Mexico State, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí and Oaxaca.
Despite some panic buying, there are no immediate signs of anyone fleeing Mexico City. Shop owner Humberto Garcia says that he is not worried about getting the virus himself. "I'm strong, I'll resist it," he says, flexing his arm muscles. Architect Maria Aguilera, 31, is also unmoved. "People are just freaking out a bit," she says. However, government worker Victor Mondragon, 45, says he may vacate the city in the next few days. "I want to see how bad this thing is," he says. "If thousands start dropping dead, then I am going to run for my life."