Masks, Public Health Tents, and Sweeping Closures

That is what swine flu in Bolivia looks like (here called Influenza A). About 100 cases have been reported here, mainly in Santa Cruz. There is a full-blown panic here that to a certain extent overlaps what occurred in the U.S. yet with local particularities and concerns. Overall, it appears that the impact here is and will be greater than in the U.S.

When we arrived two weeks ago, we were met by a team of 4 or 5 young officials (medical students? nurses? young doctors? It was hard to tell, they were all in their mid-20s and there were a few guys and a few women). They each wore two face masks and a white lab coat. They met each passenger with a clipboard and asked us while we stood in line waiting to clear immigration a series of questions – name, city of origin, if we had any flu symptoms, address in Bolivia, etc.

Later that week while talking to one of Miguel’s cousins, we found out his classes (he’s a lecturer at Rene Moreno’s campus in Montero) had been cancelled for 2 weeks due to swine flu, since there were a few confirmed cases in the vicinity.

Then upon our arrival to La Paz, I found out that *all* schools are closed (public, private, etc) for two weeks due to swine flu. This “vacation” overlaps with some schools’ winter vacation, but in many cases simply extends it for an extra week or two (particularly in the private schools that have mandated closures), and it is discussed as a closure for public health reasons, not as a scheduled break.

This includes all offices and facilities at UMSA: administration offices, laboratories, libraries, etc. Usually during a break classes are not held, but other activities continue. I had hoped to visit the laboratories and make several appointments with university officials and due to the closure this may not be possible (this is frustrating but at least I can still get together and catch up with friends in other venues).

According to a friend of mine, unlike previous “vacations” where classes are cancelled but facilities are open, they are being very strict, even denying users of the campus in Cota-Cota access unless they have a special permission de urgencia (obtained through a tramite, of course), which she and other laboratory personnel spent this week trying to obtain so that they don’t leave their experiments, samples, etc unattended for two weeks. She also told me that they have armed police at the gates to the U for control purposes.

It is common to see people walking around wearing a mask. Newspapers are getting some flack from doctors for telling people to go to the hospital for an “immediate” swine flu/influenza A test if they are exhibiting *any* cold-like symptoms (there’s not the capacity in terms of personnel, reagents, or need to do this, though apparently people have been showing up in huge numbers). Today La Razón reports that a cold front is expected, which will increase the risk and prevalence of this flu. Evo is sending 900 doctors to the campo to deal with the flu. Yesterday there was a tent staffed by medical students in the Plaza Avaroa to educate passers-by about the flu. And it goes on and on.

I am confused: I thought that this flu turns out to be a relatively mild strain (there have been no deaths in Bolivia). So why such a strong (and heavy handed) response? I’ve heard various answers. The one I am most convinced by is that many people in Bolivia, particularly La Paz, have serious underlying respiratory issues including TB, asthma, allergies, etc. The combination could be difficult to treat, especially at altitude. That may very well be the case, but I can’t help wonder what could be accomplished if all this effort went towards some other project or campaign at this point.


2 Responses

  1. I’m hoping to prod our physician, Dr. Exner, into commenting on this. There has been quite the swine-flu-panic here, too, especially among Spanish-speaking populations (largely Mexican) in Chicago. This may have to do with the coverage in Spanish-speaking media on the epidemic (which “started” in Mexico, and has been widely reported on there). Although it has been mild here too, there was a lot of fear when the story first broke.

    Have there been official statements about the swine flu/TB connection in Bolivia? Do tell!

  2. Haven’t heard any about this connection yet Clare, but yesterday one of the officials at the Min. de Salud y Deportes was quoted as saying that it wouldn’t be as bad in La Paz because the virus can’t live as long under “extreme” conditions of high UV radiation and dry air, such as in La Paz and the Altiplano. There may be some truth to that, but the implication was that La Paz = healthier, safer, Santa Cruz and other regions = dirty, dangerous, ill because humidity (not standing water, not coughing on people) breeds illness. Great. Also there seems to be some connection reported in the media between Chagas and flu severity.

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