San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Flu Pandemic Shot to Top in Health News

Two letters and two numbers were at the epicenter of the year in health in Costa Rica.

H1N1 influenza, the so-called “swine flu,” dominated the world’s public-health concerns, and Costa Rica was no exception.

So pervasive were flu fears that this year’s “in other health news” items – the construction of a new public hospital in the northern Central Valley city of Heredia, or the setting-up shop by Boston Scientific Corp. to manufacture medical devices in the same city – took back seats.

The appearance in March of a new strain of influenza in central Mexico sparked concerns that Costa Rica could be part of a worldwide pandemic that would rival the famous “Spanish flu” wave of 1918 after World War I. Costa Rica confirmed its first H1N1 case in April, the first occurrence in Central America. (Until late May, all tests  taken in Costa Rica had to be sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States, for confirmation. Costa Rica now has the capacity to conduct all H1N1 testing locally.)

Early diagnosed cases pointed to a Mexico connection in the form of people who had recently traveled to that country.

The validity of that correlation quickly fell apart as other diagnoses turned up patients with no travel experience in Mexico, nor with contact with anybody who had been there.

Costa Rica’s first H1N1 fatality, a 53-year-old man, occurred in May.

As of mid-December, H1N1 had  claimed 47 lives in the country, and nearly 1,600 cases had been

positively diagnosed.

In July, the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Novartis announced that Costa Rica would be one of three countries used to test the efficacy of a new H1N1 vaccine, different than the vaccine used to immunize against routine seasonal flu. A test group of 784 Costa Ricans, along with sample populations from Mexico and the  U.S., provided the data needed for approval of the new vaccine. Heavy demand worldwide has meant a slow start to initial distribution. The Health Ministry’s petitioning of Novartis for an early shipment of vaccine to Costa Rica in appreciation for its being a testing ground fell on deaf ears.

The first supply of vaccine was scheduled to arrive in Costa Rica on Dec. 10, but worldwide demand has delayed its arrival.

The year illustrated that no one and nothing was exempt from the effects of the flu.

In August, Costa Rica’s president, Oscar Arias, 68, became the world’s first head of state to be afflicted with the virus.

Although the president’s chronic asthma put him in a high-risk category in coping with H1N1, his

office described Arias’ symptoms as mild. He was treated with the antiviral drug Tamiflu (oseltamivir), and he worked in isolation at home for a week during recovery.

Influenza fears claimed a prominent victim in the form of the annual Aug. 2 pilgrimage to Cartago. Costa Rica’s largest  yearly gathering of people draws some two million faithful to pay homage to its patron saint, Our Lady of the Angels, at the site of a basilica in the old colonial capital in the eastern

Central Valley. (Costa Ricans attribute all manner of blessings to “La Negrita,” the black virgin, a 1635 Marian apparition that took place at the site.) The Health Ministry, in consultation with the Catholic Church, suspended this year’s observances out of concerns for possible rapid H1N1 transmission among such massive crowds. One enterprising soul designed a virtual Internet pilgrimage to replace the real event. Site viewers could attach their names to silhouette figures streaming into a computer image of the church.

Early this month, a question remained about whether the Health Ministry would allow the popular late-January festival in  Palmares, a coffee town northwest of San José. However, by mid-month it appeared the festival – complete with concerts, sports, contests, rides, food, carnival and horse parade – will, indeed, be staged Jan. 13 – 25. For more information, visit

Additionally, in a related development, Florida Bebidas will not stage the Festival Imperial in 2010. The annual outdoor rock concert, first staged in 2006, typically draws big-name acts and thousands of partiers.

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