May 22, 2009

El Paso:  Most of the swine flu cases in the region have been mild, but experts warned Thursday that this is no time to get complacent.  Health authorities have documented 54 cases of swine flu in El Paso County, 29 in Juárez and 22 in four Southern New Mexico counties. They have attributed only one death to virus-related complications, that of an already ailing 38-year-old army officer in Juárez.  

Kyle L. Johnson and German Rosas-Acosta, virologists at the University of Texas at El Paso, said they have been following the swine flu developments closely since Mexico first reported the outbreak in April.   Rosas-Acosta, who specializes in influenza studies, said much is still unknown about the new strain of A (H1N1) swine flu virus, which combines human, swine and bird flu viruses.

“We were expecting a pandemic (widespread) flu, but we were surprised it was not the avian flu,” Rosas-Acosta said.

Avian A (H5N1) or bird flu, which started in Southeast Asia, has been reported in Africa, the Pacific, Europe and the Near East, according to the World Health Organization. The mortality for bird flu cases is 50 to 60 percent, and is highest for children and young adults.  Rosas-Acosta said, “The current swine flu has an intriguing genetic makeup, an incredible mix.”  Johnson said a pig can have all three viruses, “but finding the origin of this new virus will be difficult.” She speculated environmental factors might have contributed to Mexico’s large number of deaths, 75, most of them in the capital, which has more than 20 million people packed together, a high altitude (7,350 feet above sea level) and significant air pollution.

Rosas-Acosta said the swine flu could continue to circulate in its current mild form, or it could return stronger, producing more severe symptoms, hospitalizations and deaths.
Johnson said the swine flu virus was unusual also because it broke out when the flu season typically ends.  Since the first cases were reported in Mexico City, the flu has spread to 48 of the 50 states and 41 countries. Most cases are in North America with 5,710 in the United States, 3,892 in Mexico and 719 in Canada.  The two scientists said another worrisome characteristic of the swine flu is how it is attacking younger people in general.

“The average age for cases in El Paso County is 15 years old,” said Tammy Fonce-Olivas, spokeswoman for the city of El Paso Department of Public Health.

Health authorities are watching to see how the virus will continue to spread in the Southern Hemisphere, where flu season is just beginning.  Rosas-Acosta, a native of Colombia, said the flu is transmitted year-round in his country because of the climate. Argentina, Chile, Peru, Brazil and Colombia recently have confirmed cases of the swine flu.  Most of the hospitalizations and deaths attributed to the virus involved people with compromised immune symptoms and other health problems.
This could spell trouble for countries large populations of HIV and tuberculosis-infected people from low-income backgrounds.