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Special Section: The Swine Flu


Issue 10, August 2009

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Home Special Section: The Swine Flu
Special Section: The Swine Flu Print
Swine Flu

Beginning in March 2009, a new strain of influenza A (H1N1) began appearing in Mexico and the southwestern United States.  Containing components of bird, human, and swine flues from other flu strains around the world, it was quickly labeled Swine Flu, although there is no evidence that it actually originated in pigs.  Flu viruses are known to mutate over time and to pick up new genetic material which can make them either more deadly or easier to spread, or both.  In April and May, more cases were uncovered in the United States and then began to spread to other countries around the globe; in June 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the outbreak a pandemic.

As the epicenter of the outbreak, the Mexican government acted swiftly to prevent the spread of the disease, and has been praised for its quick and thorough response to the crisis.  

  • All non-essential businesses and schools were closed in Mexico City and in other parts of the country.  
  • Tourism ground to halt as travel health warnings were issued in countries around the world.  
  • Preeminent pandemic expert Laurie Garrett was quoted on the PBS News Hour on May 1 as saying that, in fact, the world owed Mexico a huge debt for what has amounted to an extraordinary “self-sacrifice” on its part in shutting down its economy to prevent the spread of the virus.  

This “self-sacrifice” is not to be taken lightly.  Facing an already deteriorating economic situation, Mexico acted aggressively to halt the spread of the flu, thus gutting one of its most vital economic sectors: tourism.  Although Mexican resorts have reopened and the flu scare has abated, tourism remains down compared with prior years, with a concomitant dip in employment and investment in tourist-related industries.  With global tourism already down as a result of the recession, it remains to be seen how quickly Mexico’s tourism industry will rebound.

The government’s handling of the flu scare has become an issue of intense nationalistic pride for Mexico.  Compared to the way the Avian Flu and SARS scares were handled in other parts of the world, Mexicans are proud of their government’s handling of the crisis and the praise it has garnered.   

  • Diplomatic dust-ups have occurred with numerous countries around the world that continue to place restrictions on travel to or imports from Mexico.
  • The Mexican government has reacted harshly to the forced quarantine and repatriation of Mexican nationals traveling abroad (even when they had no symptoms of the virus).  This has been an issue particularly between Mexico and China, straining an already ambivalent relationship.

In some ways, the crisis has perhaps drawn Mexico and its North American partners closer.  The US, Mexico and Canada have collectively experienced the preponderance of both cases and deaths from the virus thus far.  President Calderon recently thanked the US and Canada for their support during the crisis, especially in allowing the use of their more sophisticated laboratories for testing thousands of suspected Mexican flu cases.

Foreign Policy Magazine expert Tyler Cowan notes that Mexico’s handling of the crisis provides evidence that it is not a failing state (as it was recently called in a US Pentagon report and subsequent media articles).  Swiftly shutting down a nation’s businesses, schools, and transportation network is no small task.  Doing so without major public incidents is an even more significant accomplishment, demonstrating that the government is able to act decisively and effectively in a crisis.  A side effect of the crisis is that President Calderon’s popularity has increased, and he currently enjoys high approval ratings among Mexican citizens.

While the outbreak continues, public health precautions in Mexico and around the world will likely continue for some time.

  • Many cases of swine flu continue to be reported.  Health officials expect to see more cases and perhaps a mutation of the flu in the northern hemisphere in the fall, when the traditional flu season commences.  
  • Government health agencies around the world are closely monitoring the spread and evolution of the swine flu, and therefore even if it should become more virulent, its transmission should be able to be more readily contained than in past pandemics.

As of June 11, 2009, the WHO reports:

  • There have been 28,744 cases of Swine Flu reported in 74 countries.  
  • 144 people have died.  
  • The burden of disease has fallen overwhelmingly on Mexico (6,214 cases and 108 deaths), the US (13,217 cases and 27 deaths), and Canada (2,446 cases and 4 deaths).  

Track updates through the World Health Organization website.


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