Argentina: ‘Gripe Porcina’ Comes and Goes

Cordoba, Argentina—News that a 32- year-old pregnant woman died in June from complications of H1N1 Swine flu took the small city of Alta Gracia by surprise.

After causing much hysteria in Mexico, most of the people in the area were aware that the “gripe porcina” (swine flu) had finally arrived in Argentina and many felt comfortable in the security provided by their semisecluded location 40 km from Córdoba, deep in the central part of the country.

Prior to this death much of the televised news was focused on the problems that Buenos Aires, the national capitol of over 17 million, was experiencing with the H1N1 outbreak and little mention was being made about the potential for it spreading to this area.

Efforts were immediately made by the Departmento de Salud (Department of Health), through repetitive public service radio announcements and handflyers passed around local establishments to alert the public of the “threat” of the swine flu.

This was all accomplished in the austerity that is the hallmark of Argentina - we’re talking low budget here.

Argentine public venues like soccer and rugby games, internet cafes, restaurants and bars, asados (barbeques - the Argentine national Sunday pastime), collectivos (public bus transportation, a staple for many), even unnecessary hospital visits and the traditional Argentine kiss on the cheek when greeting one another were all on the government’s list of suggested ‘banned activities’.

But perhaps the best decision made by the Health Department was to close all schools; primary, secondary, public and private, for a period of 3 weeks with plans to extend the closures if warranted. This was determined to be a good period for starters and ultimately proved to be all that was necessary to successfully limit the spread of H1N1. Children in a dense school environment are the optimum carriers and spreaders of any virus.

Most adult residents took the governmental advice in typical Argentine fashion, a combination of laissez-faire attitude and innocent nonchalance.

The television news even carried a spoof by a man dressed up as a germ pretending to be the H1N1 virus. He had written a rap song about the worldwide ‘pandemic’ and the point he was making is that it was all merely overblown hysteria, given the fact that this flu virus is no more deadly than the common yearly flu virus, and that the government’s over-reaction was merely another chance to try to intrude into Argentine life. And do Argentines love the public life! Almost as much as they mistrust their government.

There are no face masks or forced vaccinations down here, just an awareness that you should be more careful when out in public; stay home if you’re sick, cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze, wash your hands frequently - simple, common sense things that most Argentines took to heart.

A visit to an emergency room on an unrelated matter brought a similar response from the attending physician.

“We’ve seen a huge amount of people with the flu,” he calmly stated when asked about the H1N1 problem at its peak last June, adding that “it was about what we would get in an ordinary year. We just aren’t sure if it’s the regular flu or the Swine flu”. And why didn’t he know?
“We don’t have the funds to test for it.”

Ditto for vaccines.
He then said that the number of flu cases seriously decreased in the week of my visit and appeared to “have significantly peaked now”.

With the exception of a notable decrease in traffic at the local cinemas, as reported in the local newspaper, it was more or less life as usual.

All in all, the H1N1 ‘pandemic’ appeared, unlike Mexico, to be a very tame event for Argentina.

Now into early September, springtime for the southern hemisphere, Argentina appears to have weathered the storm quite well, somehow wiser and more aware of what to expect when the next storm clouds gather.