Young Boy on Pig Farm Offers Clue to Flu's Path

By Tracy Wilkinson and Cecilia Sanchez
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY -- With the death toll climbing, Mexican authorities at the center of a global flu epidemic struggled Monday to piece together its lethal march as attention focused on a 4-year-old boy and a pig farm.

The boy, who survived, has emerged as the earliest known victim in Mexico of the never-before-seen virus, Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said Monday. The boy's case provides an important clue of the strain's path.

The boy lived near a pig farm run by a U.S.-Mexican company, Granjas Carroll, in the municipality of Perote, in Veracruz state on the Gulf of Mexico coast. He contracted the disease April 2, Cordova said, and was part of a group of residents who came down with what at the time was labeled a particularly bad case of the flu.

Only one sample from the group, that belonging to the boy, was preserved and re-tested -- only after other cases of the new strain were later confirmed elsewhere, Cordova said. The boy had the same disease. It is unknown how many more of the hundreds of people who fell sick around April 2 in Perote also were infected by the more virulent strain.

In another ominous disclosure, officials said the first confirmed fatality of the disease, from an impoverished state neighboring Veracruz, worked as a door-to-door census-taker and might have had contact with scores of people.

Residents in the Perote hamlet known as La Gloria, since mid-March, have complained that contamination from the pig farm was tainting their water and giving them respiratory infections. In one demonstration in early April, they carried signs with pictures of pigs crossed out with an X and the word: Peligro -- Danger. Residents told reporters at the time that more than half of the town's 3,000 inhabitants were sick and that three children under 2 years old had died.

Local health officials mobilized when the outbreak was first reported, but they gave a different account: The infection might have started with a migrant farmer who returned from work in the U.S. and gave the disease to his wife, who in turn proved contagious to other women in the community.

Granjas Carroll, which claims to be Mexico's leading pig producer at a million heads a year, issued a statement Monday saying none of its employees have shown signs of illness and noting that the sick are people who had no contact with its pigs. It is but one of numerous farms in the region.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization announced Monday it is sending a team of experts to inspect pig farms in Mexico. The FAO's chief veterinary officer, Joseph Domenech, said the teams would attempt to determine whether the new strain is circulating among pigs and then trace linkage to human populations.

The first fatality from the disease that the government has confirmed occurred April 13. A 39-year-old woman, Maria Adela Gutierrez, died in the southern city of Oaxaca, capital of the state bordering Veracruz.

Gutierrez was a census-taker for the government's tax board, suggesting she could have had contact with many people at her most contagious point, before being hospitalized. But Martin Vazquez Villanueva, the regional health secretary in Oaxaca, denied local news reports that said she had infected 20 people, plus her husband and children.

The Mexican government has parsed out information about the outbreak and its victims only in bits and pieces, refusing to detail who the dead are and where and when they died. For the second consecutive day, the government was on the defensive against criticisms that it acted too slowly to contain the virus and to alert the public to the dangers.

"We never had this type of epidemic, this type of virus in the world," Cordova, the health secretary, said at a news conference Monday. "We don't know how many days this will go on because it's the first time in the world this virus has appeared."

The government took the extraordinary step of ordering all schools in the nation closed until May 6. Separately, the World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert level, and the U.S. and Europe advised against travel to Mexico.

Cordova said every state in Mexico is now reporting suspected cases of the virus, a major expansion of the spread of the disease. Just Thursday, the government reported the disease in Mexico City, the adjacent state of Mexico and nearby San Luis Potosi.

Cordova said this new form of swine flu is now suspected in the deaths of 149 people and that 1,995 possible cases have been reported at Mexican hospitals, all patients suffering serious pneumonia; of those, 172 have been confirmed as the new strain, he said.

"We are at the most critical moment of the epidemic," he said, adding that the number of cases would continue to rise.

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