Fear of flu outbreak causes first-ever postponement of Costa Rica church pilgrimage

July 17, 2009

The influenza A(H1N1) virus is causing the suspension of one of Costa Rica´s longest standing traditions.

Every year, Our Lady of the Angels Day is the occasion for hundreds of thousands of Costa Ricans to descend on Cartago, the old colonial capital east of San José, clogging the roads and the sidewalks. This year, participants are being asked to stay home for fear of increasing the spread of the flu virus.

To date, the virus has claimed 12 lives in Costa Rica, infected more than 560 people and, according to health officials, is approaching its peak.

“Nine out of 10 people are at risk (of contracting the virus),” Health Minister María Luis Avila told reporters on Tuesday.

The flu has already caused schools to close for an extra week of vacation, a time period that may be extended as health officials consider the risk of reopening.

And, for the first time in 227 years, Catholics are being told not to march to the Basílica de Los Angeles in Cartago, a tradition that has been carried out annually after a statue of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary appeared before an indigenous girl on Aug. 2, 1635.

She took the statue from its hiding place several times but it somehow kept finding its way back to the site at which she´d found it. When she took the statue to a priest, again, it returned to the site.

The priest interpreted this as a sign the segregated city of Cartago should be united under one church. Each year, an estimated 2 million people make the trip to Cartago in recognition of the miracle of the little statue.

“I think the most important thing to do is protect the population,” said Father Randal Zamora of the Cartago Basilica, regarding the decision to suspend the walk. “A lot of thought was given to this … It wasn´t an easy decision, but we have a responsibility to protect people.”

Zamora still expects some people to march regardless of the postponement. Yet, he said it´s important for people to know the basilica will be closed both this weekend and the weekend of Aug. 1.

As far as a new date for the march, Zamora said those details have yet to be defined.

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