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Swine flu bites Southern Hemisphere

Schools and theaters are closed while swine flu deaths rise during Argentina's winter.

A couple wearing protective masks to avoid getting the H1N1 flu virus walk by on a Buenos Aires street, July 7, 2009. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has sought to halt the spread of the new swine flu strain at the height of the Southern Hemisphere winter by closing schools and letting public sector workers take time off. (Enrique Marcarian/Reuters)

BUENOS AIRES — It's vacation time in the Northern Hemisphere as families pile into cars for a day at the beach. But in South America, it's winter, and this year that means swine flu.

Argentina's health minister claims his country is currently the most affected on earth. Visiting infectious disease specialist Alejandro Macias, who helped coordinate the response to the H1N1 epidemic in Mexico, calls it “the epicenter of the world.”

This is where most of the swine flu deaths are now happening, according to World Health Organization numbers. With 137 official H1N1 deaths, the outbreak in Argentina has been the second deadliest of the pandemic, second only to the United States.

All of those deaths were registered in the past month, almost a third of them just this past weekend. With the flu up north slowed by the summer but just moving into full swing down here, Argentina may very soon have lost more people to the disease than any country on earth.

"The countries of the Northern Hemisphere are looking at Argentina as a mirror," Macias said in an interview with the second largest Argentine newspaper last week. "The same scenario will be reflected next winter in the north, and we've come here to learn."

Canada, Australia and neighbor Chile have all reported several times as many cases of the infection. But the death toll and the mortality rate have been drastically worse in Argentina than in any almost any other country, raising questions about this government's handling of the outbreak.

About half of Argentina's H1N1 deaths have been in and around the capital, Buenos Aires.

“Paranoia” is the word resident Natalia Mueller used to describe the atmosphere in the epicenter of the epicenter, as she accompanied a feeble, mask-wearing friend to a clinic. Mueller was herself sick for a week, and she says that most of her co-workers at a popular Buenos Aires shopping mall fell ill too. A few of them died.

Although life has largely gone on as normal, the fear has been palpable at certain times and places. The financial district was eerily empty when the government declared a bank holiday last week, lengthening the Independence Day weekend. It has also shut down all schools nationwide, doubling the the usual two-week winter vacation. The mayor of Buenos Aires asked children to stay home, but didn't pass any prohibitions on large gatherings.

Many of the usual gathering places have closed by their own choice. In the face of an 80 percent drop in ticket sales, the Argentine Association of Theatrical Businesses closed all the theaters in the country for 10 days. A range of other social events have been individually cancelled, from tango balls to professional conferences to religious pilgrimages.

Economists warn of significant contraction this year due to the drop in business activity — except, of course, in the pharmaceutical sector, which has been selling out supplies of face masks and antiseptic hand gel.