- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

LAS CRUCES, N.M. | Although the swine flu outbreak in Mexico has prompted a few calls for tightening or even sealing the border, public health officials here say that they are well prepared and people are going about their business as normal, with no obvious signs of panic.

Dr. Victor Cardenas, associate professor of epidemiology at University of Texas at El Paso, said that border communities in Texas are well braced for a flu outbreak.

“Because the fear and potential threat of avian influenza in previous years, the local health departments established good emergency systems,” said the doctor, who has worked with previous flu epidemics in Mexico and Colombia. “There are contingency plans in place for almost every agency and hospital.”

Early reports had placed four infected people in Juarez, the Mexican city directly across the Rio Grande bridge from El Paso, Texas, but they have since been noted as false positives.

“I think that there is a lot of concern and I think that’s well founded. This is a new virus and we don’t know a lot about it,” said Emily Palmer, assistant press officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services. “We’re trying to answer a lot of questions for both the public and clinicians. With a new virus, professionals in the field may not know a lot about it either.”

In Texas, six outbreaks of the swine flu virus (H1N1) have been verified - three in the San Antonio area and three in Dallas. It is not clear how the people were infected. All three San Antonio-area cases originated at the same high school among three students with no history of travel.

“But other people do travel. They travel around a lot and can go quite a ways,” Ms. Palmer said.

The largest known cluster of U.S. cases - a New York City high school - had a group of students return from a vacation in Cancun, on Mexico’s Caribbean coast.

In New Mexico, 20 miles away from the El Paso-Juarez border crossing, there has been no reported case of swine flu.

Should swine flu spread to the state, it is prepared, said Dr. Chad Smelser, medical epidemiologist with the New Mexico Department of Health.

“We’ve had exercises around state on how to deal with pandemic flu, including triage of patients and surge capacity,” Dr. Smelser said. “Over the last couple years, the state has also purchased some pharmaceutical caches.”

Dr. Smelser said a major asset to the entire border region is the Border Influenza Surveillance Network, a cross-border grouping of three U.S. and Mexican states that was regularly trading health and disease information well before swine flu became an issue.

“We have an international influenza surveillance system between Chihuahua, Texas, and New Mexico that includes the ability to transport specimens across the border from Mexico,” he said.

Border health authorities have also been providing seasonal flu awareness courses to U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel for the past two years. In addition, they have stepped up alerts at border detention centers.

“We have a lot of foot traffic comes into Texas first and then New Mexico,” Dr. Smelser said. “So we need to educate those folks as much as possible on how to deal with and report cases appropriately.”

In El Paso, it’s business as usual, local lawyer Andrea Cortinas said.

“I haven’t really seen a change. I just went out for lunch, and there were lots of people out and about,” Ms. Cortinas said. “Walked a few blocks over to a restaurant actually and had to go to a second one because the first was so busy.”

Precautions such as face masks and limited outdoor movement aren’t being employed.

“All my colleagues seem to be OK with it, too. They weren’t extremely worried,” she said. “It is something we’re thinking about, but no one’s panicking.”

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