News & Events

H1N1 update and policies in Argentina

Dear Pandemic Flu Workgroup:

Argentina is one of the hardest hit nations in the southern hemisphere (where their flu seasonal has just begun).  From this news report today – All public and private schools in Buenos Aires province have been closed for the rest of the month, basically extending the two week winter vacation. Pregnant women working in both the public and private sectors have been given two weeks leave; public employees of the province of Buenos Aires with children under the age of 14 were allowed to take leave – 45,000, or 10 percent of the payroll, have done so.  An earlier report said that 10% of healthcare workers in Buenos Aires were not showing up for work, either because they were sick or feared getting sick.  More detail from Argentina is below.

Mark Catlin
Industrial Hygienist
1800 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20036
Direct: 202-730-7290
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HEALTH-ARGENTINA: H1N1 Flu Puts Cheek Kiss Greeting on Hold

By Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jul 8 (IPS) – These days, people in the Argentine capital are largely avoiding the traditional greeting: a peck on the cheek. Doctor’s orders, amidst the fast spread of the H1N1 influenza virus, otherwise known as swine flu.

The pace of life in this bustling city of 12 million has slowed down as schools have closed and other activities have been put on hold in the face of an epidemic that has so far claimed 60 lives.

Above all, the health authorities have recommended isolation to curb the spread of the flu, and people in the capital are trying to stay home as much as possible, unless influenza symptoms drive them to join the crowds flocking to hospitals and health clinics.

All public and private schools in Buenos Aires province have been closed for the rest of the month, basically extending the two week winter vacation.

Pregnant women working in both the public and private sectors have been given two weeks leave; public employees of the province of Buenos Aires with children under the age of 14 were allowed to take leave – 45,000, or 10 percent of the payroll, have done so; the winter judicial recess was moved forward and expanded by two weeks, to a full month; Congress has taken a prolonged recess; and theatres were closed for 10 days starting Monday.

Factory workers and people working in the service sector are demanding that their work hours be shortened.

"Demand is always much greater than normal at this time of year," Dr. Juan Rodríguez del Sel told IPS. The Durand public hospital where he works in Buenos Aires is on the front-line of the battle against the swine flu epidemic, which first broke out in Mexico in late April and has now coincided with the southern hemisphere winter flu season.

"Most of the cases are not serious, but now we are getting cases that are not commonly seen: young people with severe acute respiratory problems who end up on artificial respirators within 48 hours of the appearance of symptoms," said the doctor.

"These are people under 30, without prior health problems," he said.

The Argentine Health Ministry estimates that 97 percent of people with flu symptoms today have the H1N1 virus, which would put the total number at around 105,000. Of that total, 90 percent are asymptomatic or mild cases, and only a small minority of cases are complicated by pneumonia.

Dr. Eduardo López, head of medicine at the Gutiérrez Hospital and a member of the government’s Crisis Committee, estimated Tuesday that there are currently 107,000 cases in this country of nearly 40 million, according to projections based on the way the disease has spread.

On Monday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported 60 deaths in Argentina and 16 in Chile, the two South American countries hit hardest by the pandemic.

The authorities decided Monday to expand supplies of anti-flu medication to all patients who show even mild symptoms. To that end, the state distributed more than 300,000 doses and expects to distribute another 500,000 – an indication of the extent to which health experts expect the flu to keep spreading.

This week, the health authorities of the centre-left government of Cristina Fernández received 270 million dollars in additional budget funds to purchase more respirators and medicine, in order to provide free treatment to at least half a million patients. There will also be extra money to hire additional medical staff and purchase other materials.

Juan Carr, a spokesman for the non-governmental Red Solidaria (Solidarity Network), which is working closely with the authorities in the current public health emergency, cited projections that four million people will catch the H1N1 virus in Argentina.

He said that in half of the cases, people will have no symptoms but will be contagious nonetheless. Of the rest, just 18 percent will be seen by a doctor or visit a health clinic or hospital, and only a tiny minority will develop severe complications.

But what people are worried about is the fact that it is not yet clear what kind of patients are at risk of severe problems. The only specific warning issued so far has targeted pregnant women as an at-risk group.

Experts in the Health Ministry point out that seasonal flu viruses normally kill between 3,000 and 4,000 people a year in Argentina, mainly among vulnerable groups: newborns, the elderly, and people with depressed immune systems or chronic respiratory problems, diabetes or cardiac conditions.

The current epidemic has caused alarm because most of the serious cases have involved healthy people who within two days of getting a fever and a cough end up in the intensive care unit fighting for their lives.

The decision to distribute anti-flu medication to everyone who has symptoms is aimed at preventing such cases.

Fear of the pandemic has slowed down the busy pace of life in Greater Buenos Aires. People are staying home as much as possible, and the city’s hospitals are only keeping up with demand thanks to an extraordinary effort by their staff.

Night and day, long lines of patients await their turn. "He has a fever, a cold and a cough," Ada Martínez told IPS after waiting two hours for her three-year-old to be seen by a doctor at the Children’s Hospital in the northern Buenos Aires neighbourhood of San Isidro. Both she and her son were wearing face masks.

In the capital, where the service for pediatric home health visits tends to be efficient, delays of up to 48 hours have become common in the last few weeks, and health professionals have received training on how to determine which cases are most urgent, based on the description of symptoms over the phone.

Some schools closed last week and others did so on Monday, with parents going in to pick up homework assignments. Public and private secondary school students have received assignments and recommended reading by email or online.

The main haunts of teenagers – gyms and health clubs, discotheques, cybercafés and swimming pools – have been closed in many neighbourhoods. And although shopping centres, with their movie theatres and eateries, are still open, city officials in some districts have recommended that children under 18 stay away from such places, for their own safety.

Theatres in Buenos Aires, which had experienced a sharp decline in visitors, shut their doors for 10 days as of Monday. The owners of movie theatres, meanwhile, promised to sell fewer tickets to keep down the size of the crowds, and are offering alcohol-based hand disinfectants. But not many people are venturing out to the movies anyway.

Train and subway stations, which are normally packed at rush hour, are as empty as they are during holidays.

Because the public administration is short-staffed, authorities have recommended people to postpone anything but the most urgent business. Anyone whose driver’s license has expired is now eligible for an automatic 30-day extension.

Shopping centres have seen business decline by half, although in some sectors the drop was much bigger, such as recreational areas for children, which are considering closing their doors.

On the other hand, pharmacies, bookstores and video and DVD centres are doing brisk business, seeing a 30 to 40 increase in rentals and sales.

In pharmacies, not only flu medicine is flying off the shelves, but also face masks, tissues and alcohol-based hand rubs.

People are keeping social visits to a minimum, and instead of new reservations, party rooms are receiving cancellations.

The Asociación de Meretrices de la Argentina (Argentine Prostitutes Association), estimates the drop in demand at 80 percent and the owners of pay-by-the-hour hotels say business has plunged.

On Jun. 29, health minister Graciela Ocaña resigned over differences with the Fernández administration in the handling of the swine flue epidemic and a previous dengue fever outbreak. (END/2009)