Largely absent from the headlines of the daily newspapers during the past few days, the so-called swine flu gives the impression that it possibly has run its course.
However, Costa Rican health officials continue to work at full tilt to identify and contain the cases that have surfaced here. While the country only has reported one confirmed case, dozens of other suspected cases emerged during the past week. On Friday, the Health Ministry reported 180 suspected cases of this flu. Six days later, that number jumped to 541.
There were four probable cases reported on Friday, May 1, and that number increased to eight this week.
“It’s better to call those cases ‘probable’,” Health Minister María Avila told reporters on Tuesday morning, indicating that her ministry would rather play the numbers game cautiously. So far, 395 potential cases have been discarded.
Some health officials are on edge because of a recent probable case involving a 53-yearold man who had not traveled to Mexico or had any known contact with someone who had recently been there. This man is in critical condition with other medical problems at an unnamed hospital, said Avila. An 11-year-old child who suffers from asthma also has been hospitalized.
The swine flu outbreak held countries at a standstill for days, as officials vacillated over whether to close borders, cancel school classes and turn away imports. Alarming headlines put people on edge; the World Health Organization issued a Level 5 alert signaling an imminent pandemic; and President Oscar Arias declared a national emergency.
Health officials all over the world measured the extent of the threat. But in Costa Rica, medical personnel were taking no chances.
Plastering health advisory posters to the insides of buses, on bulletin boards in churches and near coffee machines in work places, health workers continue to try to raise awareness and, at the same time, encourage residents to practice sanitary measures to control the virus.
Bus drivers are wiping down their vehicles to lower the risk of infection, and mass educational initiatives are being implemented at local schools and universities.
Visitors entering the country are required to fill out a health form and indicate all potential flu symptoms. Avila said that if visitors exhibit symptoms, they will be turned away at immigration checkpoints.
“We are prepared for the worst,” she said, “but at the same time, we want to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) continues to advise against closing borders or restricting regular travel. The organization is encouraging sick travelers to delay trips and others who are developing symptoms to seek medical attention.
Ignoring WHO’s recommendations, some governments, including Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador and Peru, have imposed travel restrictions.
The restrictions have angered many airlines, as well as an airline industry umbrella organization –the Latin American and Caribbean Air Transport Association (ALTA).
“We are very concerned about the unilateral actions being taken by some countries in our region,” said ALTA Executive Director Alex de Gunten in a statement.
“These restrictions not only go against the WHO’s recommendations, but are negatively impacting travelers and citizens who want to return to their countries, and are also negative to the economic well being of countries in the region.”
Meanwhile, the number of flu cases in Mexico and the United States continues to balloon. Laboratory testing confirmed 1,122 cases in Mexico and 642 in the United States. There are 44 reported deaths from the flu in North America, according to the World Health Organization.
Reassuring the public that the situation is under control in Costa Rica, Avila said, “It’s important to remain calm. This is not a moment to despair, but a moment to have faith. We should continue with the established measures.”
The health ministry ordered 10,000 more doses of antiviral medication, adding to the roughly 7,000 doses already here.
The virus, which has similar symptoms to a typical flu – including body aches, high temperature and stuffy nose – seems to target young to middle-aged individuals. According to statistics from Costa Rica’s Health Ministry, people between the ages 20 and 29 have the highest rate of infection at 145 suspected cases nationwide, followed by the 30 to 39 age group, which has 127 cases thus far.
The swine flu virus, which is known to have the same properties as the seasonal flu in terms of how it is spread, can survive on environmental surfaces for up to two to eight hours after being deposited, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Like seasonal flu, the swine flu virus is believed to be contagious from one day before symptoms develop up to seven days after the symptoms show.
For individuals experiencing symptoms, the health ministry recommends staying away from public places and contacting the nearest local medical clinic if symptoms worsen. Ministry officials advise travelers to contact their nation’s embassies.
Swine Flu Outbreak by the Numbers
Friday, May 1 Thursday, May 7
Cases confirmed 1 1
Probable 4 8
Suspected 180 541
Confirmed cases are ones that tested positive for the Influenza A(H1N1) virus in laboratories at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Probable cases are ones that have been submitted to CDC for testing and are considered highly likely cases by Costa Rica health experts. The health ministry defines suspected cases as patients with heightened symptoms who have recently traveled to countries with a circulation of the virus or have been in contact with people who have the virus.