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.

La Paz

Some brief thoughts in no particular order:

1. La Paz looks good – lots of construction, new public bathrooms, etc. It is great to be back. Most of the old favorites (cafes, restaurants, etc) are still here and doing well.

2. As Miguel said over at *Pronto, La Paz seems relatively calm these days (unless I missed it, La Razón has retired the “marchodromo” section).

3. Santa Cruz still feels like an overgrown pueblo (at least to me). I just can’t get a read on the quotidian life of the city, unlike, say, in La Paz or Cochabamba. In sum, it just seems rough in every sense and many people we’ve seen here have told us how Santa Cruz remains the most dangerous city in Bolivia (indeed, one of Miguel’s cousins was recently assaulted and stabbed there).

4. It was great to see Maria and Machi yesterday! And Evan + his wife + wawas!

5. In terms of tourism – we’ve seen very very few tourists, even on Sagarnaga. There’s the usual crop of researchers, aid workers, etc here, but we were remarking this AM on the relatively sparse numbers of high-tech fabric wearing backpackers that we can spot. Perhaps due to the visa requirement? It is hard to judge. Our hotel is full (and highly recommended, btw) but mainly with professionals, here for work.

6. Clare – UNAR was just kicked out of Tiwanaku by the new alcaldesa. I guess the Venezuelan government gave Tiwanaku half a million USD. Check yesterday’s La Razón for details.

7. La Paz is great for kids – specifically La Terraza in Sopocachi, which has high chairs with toys, a swingset and a slide, and kid-friendly empanadas. Chasing pigeons is also loads of fun, as is car/bus/micro/moto/etc spotting

8. More posts to come on the swine flu outbreak here – many many people are wearing masks all the time, many Us have closed, etc.

Appetite at Altitude

Many of us who travel from sea-level to the Andes (12,000 feet or so) experience a loss of appetite for a few weeks. Not my kid – he’s become ravenous!

Hungry baby

FIFA to allow high-altitude games

I’m not much of a soccer fan (nor a sports fan) in general, but I am glad that FIFA reversed its decision and will allow World Cup playoff games to take place in La Paz and other high-altitude cities.

Some individuals do, of course, suffer from debilitating altitude sickness, and no soccer player should be forced to play in La Paz if that is the case. But for residents of highland Bolivia, “high-altitude” is not an exceptional situation, but rather a normal condition of everyday life. They should not be excluded from seeing playoff games, nor Bolivian teams denied having “home” games — because their city does not provide similar conditions to other nations. Humans live in diverse environments. Ideally, athletes should accept — and celebrate — that.