By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS -- The threat of Swine Flu hovered over Venezuela as the death toll in Mexico rose above 150. Three suspected cases were reported by the Health Institute in Carabobo state, which said the patients were under examination at a hospital and results were expected within 48 hours.
All three had returned from Mexico on April 24 and began to show symptoms afterwards. Spokesmen for the state government said officials had been sent to the airport to supervise checks on incoming passengers.
Vaccination centers were set up in parts of the country, with Zulia state in western Venezuela concentrating its facilities on the border with Colombia. An official said that the authorities had sufficient vaccine for 300,000 people, but it turned out this was vaccine for the conventional human form of influenza.
Meanwhile, the government says it has started registering people arriving on flights from the U.S., Mexico and Colombia, where cases of swine flu have been confirmed. Health workers and airport personnel at Caracas’s Maiquetia International Airport are asking passengers to fill out a form listing any flu symptoms.
The government is setting up sites where passengers at the Caracas airport can be vaccinated against the flu.
The origins of the disease remain unclear as investigations continue at research centers. A medical specialist warned there was no certainty that the Zulia vaccine would be effective against Swine Flu.
The Venezuelan Pharamceutical Federation said that sales of antibiotics, and anti-viral and influenza medicines had risen by 25 to 30% since the news of the outbreak. The federation said it had offerred its support and help to the Health Ministry.
There were the usual reports of price gouging by unscrupulous vendors. Word of mouth had it that pharamacists were charging skyhigh rates for single-shot vaccinations in the Chacao district of Caracas even as the municipal authorities set up centers for vaccination at nominal rates, or free in the case of demonstrable inability to pay.
For its part, the Health Ministry did not issue a formal alert. Officials there and elsewhere were out to contain any sudden shift towards panic on the part of the general public.
Agriculture and Land Minister Elías Jaua gave an assurance that Venezuelan livestock including pigs was in "good condition" and extra inspections had been ordered. Venezuela didn't import pork, he added, and in any case, the disease wasn't transmitted via meat.
Caracas Metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a leading figure in the Opposition who's been under seige from the government and its supporters since winning office last November, said measures were being implemented in response to the outbreak. Officials urged people not to prescribe treatment for themselves, but to go to a doctor if flu-like symptoms persisted for more than three days.
The national tourism council, Conseturismo, called on its members to exercise "flexibility and understanding" with passengers from flights that were originally destined for
Mexico but got diverted. The beginning of May usually sees the start of an annual increase in tourist traffic to Mexico, especially with Cinco de Mayo celebrations just next week.
Conseturismo President Rafael Guerra warned that some passengers who found they'd been diverted might want their money back. Penalties for late arrival or changes of destination should be waived, he said.