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Swine flu in Chile: The paranoia has begun

As of today, there are four confirmed cases of swine flu among the 16 million-plus population of Chile, and already the paranoia has begun.

The four cases are three Chilean women who arrived on a Copa Airlines flight to Santiago from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic on Saturday, and a six-year-old boy, who was not on the plane. It is still unclear how the boy got sick, but this means there is potential for contagion far beyond the 102 passengers aboard that Copa flight.

It turns out that the first-grader is a classmate of a co-worker’s son. What happened this morning at our workplace is telling of the confusion around addressing potential contagion.

This co-worker, F, started getting calls late last night from other parents worried about what to do with their kids — should we send them to school or not? Finally, they decided not to send any of their children to school, and neither did the parents of a fourth grade class attended by the boy’s older brother.

This morning, after it was confirmed that the boy had swine flu (he is fine and undergoing treatment), the school suspended classes altogether.

At work, we joked about having the honor of being one of the potential centers of the swine flu epidemic in Chile. We chuckled about how we shouldn’t sit too close to F and how we all needed a few days of vacation anyway, trying to play down his natural concern.

But when it came around to a meeting set for 11 a.m. this morning, no one rushed. There was serious talk about holding the meeting elsewhere, in a more open, ventilated space. We finally opened the windows to let the cold breeze drift in, and crammed into the office.

We all thought we were exaggerating, but suddenly, although neither F or his children have flu symptoms, he was told to go home for the day and for the following days. He learned that other parents with children in the same school were also being told to go home.

What’s next? If the father of a boy whose classmate has the swine flu is quarantined, then should all the parents of the first and fourth graders in that school be sent home as well? 

What about all of those parents’ co-workers? I mean, if we spend many hours every day sharing the same office space, might not we all be at risk, too?

And what about our own children? If the co-workers of a father whose son is a classmate of a boy with the swine flu are quarantined, shouldn’t our children be sent home as well?

Where does the chain of transmission end? When do we start using surgical masks? When do we stop greeting each other with a kiss, as is custom here? When do we start sitting a meter away from each other? When do we stop shaking hands? These became serious topics of conversation today. Before, it was just commenting news events elsewhere.

What makes it more troubling, especially in the capital, is that we are experiencing a particularly odd fall-winter season, with abnormally warm days and very cool nights. It is also unusually dry, and in Santiago, less rain means more pollution. So with radical changes in temperature and a permanently polluted environment, conditions are ripe for all sorts of colds and flu.

“We shouldn’t begin to panic”, said President Bachelet in a radio interview this morning.

But if the paranoia sinks in anyway, and it surely will, the public and private health services will likely collapse from thousands of people rushing to find out whether their fever, headaches, cough and other symptoms are due to changes in temperature, pollution or swine flu.