NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 5, 2009

Why is Mexico's death toll from the swine flu virus higher than anyplace else?  Epidemiologists are still puzzled by the virus and its modes of transmission.  But they agree that prompt medical attention is crucial to treating it.  That has been where Mexico lags far behind, says the New York Times.

In Mexico, people tend to wait too long before going to the doctor; instead they rely on an eclectic approach to health care, says the Times:

  • Large numbers of people self-prescribe antibiotics, take only homeopathic medicine or seek out mysterious vitamin injections.
  • For many, only when all else fails do they go to a doctor, who may or may not be well prepared.
  • There are logistical reasons as well; at overcrowded public facilities, they are often turned away, treated by indifferent doctors or made to wait endlessly with tragic results.

Take the case of Adela María Gutiérrez, the first swine flu victim:

  • Gutiérrez fell ill in the beginning of April with what she thought was a bad cold.
  • It would be more than a week before she went to Mexico's Oaxaca General Hospital, where she arrived listless and barely able to breathe.
  • At the hospital, no beds or respirators were available, and preference was given to people who were bleeding or near death.
  • Making matters worse, because it was Holy Week, the hospital had lower staffing levels than normal, and she had to wait several hours before being seen.

The Mexican government is pushing to expand its public health network through a new insurance program that attempts to reach poorer people and those in remote areas.  But experts say the country has had a harder time improving quality.  Currently, Mexico's public health budget is about 3 percent of gross domestic product and the country has 1.6 hospital beds for every 1,000 people, a ratio only half that of the United States, says the Times.

Source: Marc Lacey and Elisabeth Malkin, "First Flu Death Provides Clues to Mexico Toll," New York Times, May 1, 2009.

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