MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Roberto Mendoza was a brawny masked wrestler, aged 29, who ate heartily, pumped iron at the gym and loved football. Then he caught a vicious strain of flu, checked into hospital and nine days later he was dead.
“It was very quick. He got worse and worse, they put tubes in him, then he died,” said his red-eyed sister Belen, 32, who works in a small Mexico City eatery that is being scrubbed with bleach as she speaks.
In the grindingly poor city district of Iztapalapa, a little girl fell ill with a fever which sent shooting pain through her muscles and killed her a few days later.
On a swankier side of town, former Mexico City mayor and one-time presidential hopeful Manuel Camacho Solis went to a lunch and later that day was struck ill with a burning fever that left him fighting for his life in hospital. The fact doctors spotted fast that it looked like swine flu helped him survive.
Mexico’s deadly swine flu epidemic, now on the brink of sparking a much-feared pandemic throughout the world, seems to be striking indiscriminately at young, old, rich and poor, and health officials can find no common link between the victims.
Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said this week there was nothing to show whether victims had anything in common, such as traveling on the crowded Mexico City subway.
As more cases come to light, unease is growing over who might be carrying the virus. Car park attendants in masks and rubber gloves and rich housewives clutching antiseptic hand sanitizer eye each other with equal suspicion.
“The worst part was thinking it was ordinary flu ... then going for medical help and suddenly realizing the problem is in your lungs and you’re going to be placed in intensive care,” Camacho Solis, now recovered but with a severely reduced lung capacity, told Reuters.
“Luckily, they were able to give me the specific antiviral medicine which stabilized the situation.”
So far, the only death outside the country has been a Mexican toddler who was taken to hospital in Texas, but the infection has spread far enough for the World Health Organization to warn on Wednesday a pandemic is looming.
Mexico says up to 176 people have been killed by swine flubut those many of those cases may never be confirmed, as the victims are already buried. Mendoza’s case is an example.
“We just want to know what he died of. It’s illogical that someone of his age and condition can die of pneumonia,” said Belen, who will be tested for the swine flu virus this week after she sat at her brother’s bedside through his last days.
Striking healthy young adults is a hallmark of pandemics.
The high death rate in Mexico is also being blamed on the fact that poorer folk cannot take paid time off work or afford medical visits. Cases are emerging where patients with flu-like symptoms were treated with ordinary painkillers by shoddy doctors and in some cases sent home.
Some families are camping out at hospitals, even outside on pavements, desperately worried about the never-before-seen virus.
“They started treating him but we didn’t yet know about this problem. It was simply a case of pneumonia. Then it came out about this virus and now they say possibly it could be he has this flu,” said Ramon Herrera, whose son has been in intensive care since April 15 with suspected swine flu.
Mexican health officials are still scrambling to understand how the illness broke out.
Attention has focused on Veracruz state and a pig farm where a confirmed case of human swine flu was detected.
However, Miguel Angel Lezana, Mexico’s chief epidemiologist says the presence of Eurasian swine flu genes in the virus makes it unlikely that it originated in a Mexican pig farm.
Investigators believe a 39-year-old census taker in Oaxaca was the first person to die from the flu. She fell ill with what she thought was pneumonia on April 4 and then spent the last eight days of her life going around clinics trying in vain to find a doctor to cure her.
The cause of her death was not determined until April 23 when a previously unknown flu virus combining strains of swine, bird and human flus was identified. Recovery requires quick attention with antiviral drugs and equipment to aid breathing.
Additional reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez, Robert Campbell and Jason Lange; Editing by Kieran Murray