Science - May 7, 2009

‘SOME PEOPLE ARE AFRAID TO TOUCH MEXICANS’

For the past two weeks, the world has been engrossed by the swine flu in Mexico. Besides its enormous impact on public life in Mexico, the outbreak of the AH1N1 virus also affects Mexican students in Wageningen.

‘A Mexican restaurant owner has his own way of warning people about the swine flu.’
Joost van Heerwaarden, who got his PhD at Wageningen University last year, lives and works near Mexico city. He reports in an email that it seems to be calming down there a bit. ‘Since 30 April there have been no new deaths and the media give the impression that the number of new infections is relatively small. On the streets, not so many people are wearing surgical masks, and in the next few days schools and public facilities will be opening again.’

In the first week after the outbreak of the AH1N1 virus became know, it dominated public life in Mexico, Joost writes. At first there was a lot of uncertainty about how fast the disease was spreading and now serious the symptoms were. Schools were closed almost immediately and mass public events were cancelled. ‘A lot of football matches, for example, were played behind closed doors. Pretty soon, even restaurants, bars and cinemas closed down. Of course, this didn’t exactly reassure people. A lot of people went around wearing surgical masks, and they went to the local clinic at the slightest sneezing fit.’ Even Joost took his temperature every hour when he had a cold. ‘You never know’, he thought.

‘All in all, it created an unreal atmosphere around here. Mexico is a country with a lot of street life. The relative peacefulness and the lack of night life were a bit ominous’, Joost adds. ‘But not everyone took the disease so seriously. Just as often happens here, there were also rumours that it was all a ploy to distract attention from the government’s incompetence.’

Back in Wageningen, Mexican Master’s student of Food biotechnology Vicente Sedano Nuñez heard about the swine flu on CNN. The ‘influenza porcina’, as it is called in Spanish, also received extensive coverage in the Mexican newspapers that Vicente reads daily on the internet. And he regularly phones his parents, who live near Mexico City. ‘My parents don’t worry. They don’t know anybody who is sick, but they do know a lot of people that are very scared. One of the neighbours even wears a surgical mask. Before the swine flu, all the news in Mexico was about the financial crisis. Now it is as if the crisis does not exist any more. And the sales of anti-bacterial hand gel have certainly gone up a lot’, says Vicente dryly.

A lot of Mexican students in Wageningen fear for the health of their family, according to Vicente. However, he himself is sceptical about the dangers that were being played up in the media. What he really worries about is the lack of accurate information, which adds to the global hysteria. ‘People are being misinformed. That leads to reactions that are not rational and cause problems. Like the ban on pork in Russia and China. From friends in the USA I heard that Americans are afraid to touch Mexican people or eat Mexican products.’

On the Dutch Queen’s Day, Vicente and his long-time Mexican girlfriend Cecilia, who studies in France, went to Amsterdam. There they saw a stall selling gloves and surgical masks, displaying the words ‘Beware of the Mexicans’. Before she was allowed into the Netherlands a few days ago, Cecilia was asked how long she had been in France. The couple is planning to take a vacation in Stockholm this week. Vicente hopes they won’t be rejected when they go there. Alexandra Branderhorst

CVI DEVELOPS TEST FOR MEXICAN FLU VIRUS
The Central Veterinary Institute (CVI) in Lelystad has been asked by the Word Food Organization (FAO) to develop a test for identifying the Mexican flu in other hosts than humans – such as pigs.
The test would enable countries for check whether imported pigs, for example, are free of the virus. It resembles the H1N1 virus that is common among pigs, says virologist Dr. Guus Koch of the CVI. ‘But this virus has a combination of genes from viruses that normally occur in North America and which were circulating among pigs in Europe over ten years ago. Those viruses are more like the influenza viruses that also occur in birds. We seem to be dealing with a mutant that attacks humans. Up to now the virus has only been found in pigs in Canada, where it was recently found in pigs that were probably infected by a worker who had been to Mexico.’ The term Mexican ‘swine flu’ is not altogether correct, thinks Koch. He believes it is impossible to predict whether or how the virus will spread further. / Albert Sikkema

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