Swine flu concerns rise in Southern Hemisphere

Several provinces in Argentina declared a health emergency Tuesday as the number of H1N1 cases continues to rise.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A man wears a mask as part of preventive measures against the H1N1 flu in Buenos Aires on Wednesday.
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As the number of diagnosed cases of swine flu recedes in the Northern Hemisphere, several countries in the Southern Hemisphere are now struggling with how to respond to the H1N1 virus.

Argentina is now surpassed only by Mexico and the US in swine flu-related deaths, but has not chosen – so far – to close down major public venues, restaurants, and schools to the same extent. But that may change as health experts warn that the virus appears to be spreading as the Southern Hemisphere moves into winter.

"We are tapping into surveillance networks that the World Health Organization has in place to monitor what is going on in the Southern Hemisphere," says Tom Skinner, a spokesman from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.

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Australia's swine flu tally has risen past 4,000 confirmed cases in recent days, including nine deaths. And the number of confirmed cases in New Zealand rose to 711 on Wednesday, up 58 from 653 on Tuesday, the Ministry of Health said.

Did politics get in the way in Argentina?

Authorities in Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, and Buenos Aires Province declared health emergencies and extended school vacations Tuesday as the nation's swine flu death toll jumped to 35, with more than 1,500 cases of the virus already confirmed. The city and province make up almost half of Argentina's population, and they joined four other provinces that already declared health emergencies. The move came one day after the country's health minister, Graciela Ocana, resigned, in part because of the government's handling of the crisis.

In the week leading up to Argentina's midterm elections this past Sunday, the fact that swine flu is circulating was hardly perceptible, with bars and restaurants packed and only a few people donning the surgical masks that were ubiquitous across Mexico City during the height of its crisis.

But the number of diagnosed H1N1 cases made front-page news and radio commercials reminded citizens how to avoid infection. Carlos Giani, a taxi driver in Buenos Aires, says that he is concerned and faults the government for not declaring a national emergency earlier. "They did not do it because of midterm elections," he says. "That is not right. We are talking about lives here. Politics is not worth it."

Seasonal concerns

Pablo Ava, an external consultant for Argentina's health ministry, says that there's concern about the spread of this virus because winter is considered the "flu season." In both Mexico, where the current outbreak of swine flu is believed to have originated, and the US, the H1N1 outbreak was discovered in spring. No nation has yet had experience with this flu strain during winter months.

"We have the risk that if it spreads very fast ... the health system could collapse," Mr. Ava says.

Brazil has advised its citizens to delay travel to Argentina and Chile.

Argentina has reinforced its hospitals and delayed nonessential surgery in many urban areas so that hospitals can handle a growing number of patients seeking care. It has spread fastest in poor urban areas that ring the capital.

Ms. Ocana, the health minister, gave no specific reason for stepping down, but local media have said that she was frustrated that the federal government had not declared a national emergency. She had asked schools to be closed down weeks earlier, says Ava. She also butted heads with Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner over an earlier dengue fever outbreak and with unions over control of funds.

• Material from wire services was used in this report.

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