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Inside Mexico's hospitals, a struggle to cope

Morale is low among medical staff as number of swine flu victims increases

A father and son (wearing a surgical mask) wait to be attended to at the General Hospital in Cancun, Mexico April 27, 2009. Hospital staff are struggling to meet demand. (Victor Ruiz/Reuters)

MEXICO CITY — Pushing through a hospital waiting room crowded with anxious relatives, nurse Gisela Bernal signed off from a 12-hour shift working with coughing swine flu victims.

“I haven’t had a single day off since this epidemic started. I’m exhausted,” said Bernal, wiping sweat from her brow above a blue face mask. “I want to help all these people. But I just don’t know how long I can carry on.”

Morale is low at Mexico’s hospitals among much of the medical staff, who are responsible for treating a growing number of patients for symptoms from the H1N1 virus — a new strain of flu that mixes features of avian, swine and human viruses.

On Thursday, about 1,500 people were in hospital beds across Mexico with symptoms that appeared to be from the swine flu virus, an eight-fold increase compared with a week ago. The vast majority had not been confirmed as having the swine flu, as Mexican labs do not have the capability to verify the mutant virus.

The government said 176 people had died from what appears to be the disease, although only eight cases have been confirmed.

The influx of patients has put mounting pressure on Mexico’s hospital facilities, where nurses complain they being overworked and put in danger of catching the virus themselves.

At Mexico’s National Institute for Respiratory Diseases, about 20 nurses and other employees treating patients with severe swine flu cases poured out of the hospital to talk to journalists on several occasions this week.

The nurses complained that amid the turmoil, basic safety procedures were being ignored — such as the use of face masks.

“This is a high-risk environment and they need to give us safety equipment. But they are not doing it,” said nurse Irma de Jesus, waving her hands in despair. “This is generating a lot of fear and panic among the staff.”