Mexico City shares H1N1 lessons for new flu season

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Mexico City expects to see its first H1N1 flu cases this month. And as we all prepare for flu season the capital is sharing some lessons learned during the spring outbreak. Some of the changes in strategy may surprise you. I sat down with Mexico City's Health Secretary during a recent visit.

He greeted me with a firm handshake and a kiss on the cheek (the custom in much of Mexico). The city's health campaign will again encourage residents to keep their distance when flu season starts.

"We're absolutely certain there will be another outbreak, Dr. Armando Ahued Ortega told me. " We now have the experience and we're prepared. "

Mexico City learned a lot during the original outbreak this past spring and used that information to design a flu fighting plan. Health authorities now know the early deaths were people who waited too long for medical attention.

The public education campaign will urge anyone with symptoms to seek immediate treatment. In most cases people can recover at home with antiviral prescribed by their family doctor. But some may need hospitalization.

During the outbreak this spring, health authorities in Mexico City learned that of 65 antiviral drugs used only two worked. Tami flu is the only one you can get at a pharmacy (with prescription.) The other known as Sanavivir in Mexico is inhaled and administered in a hospital. The capital has a stockpile of effective antiviral medication ready for flu season and access to more from Mexico's federal government.

The mayor of Mexico City Marcelo Ebrard though won't be counting on the federal government's lab. He made sure the capital has its own lab ready to test samples this fall. The federal lab was overwhelmed by the number of cases and the CDC had to come in and set up a temporary lab to help Mexico test a backlog of samples when the outbreak peaked.

Mexico City does not expect to get the new vaccine in time to make a difference. The H1N1 vaccine won't be available until December in Mexico City. And the Health Secretary told me that it takes a minimum of 45 days after the shot for full protection. The city will only get 5 million doses and that is too little too late. " We have to work as if there were not a vaccine," explained Dr. Ahued Ortega.

Instead authorities will push prevention as the best protection. A public campaign will focus on frequent hand washing and other tips like keeping sick students and employees home.

Mass closures of schools, government offices and businesses are not part of the plan this fall. Businesses criticized the mayor for taking such drastic action. But Mexico City's health secretary defends the move "It was not exaggerated. Mexico City was able to control this epidemic."

Instead of closing all schools the government will individual classroom when 3 students get the flu. An entire school will shut down when 3 classrooms are infected.

This summer Mexico City's Secretary of Health has advised South American countries facing their own outbreaks. It's winter there now. He says Chile followed Mexico's example and has managed the virus better than Argentina which had a bigger outbreak and only closed some schools. Mexico's health secretary was on the way to Buenos Aires the day we met to offer more assistance.

One last lesson: those face masks we saw everywhere, it turns out they not necessary. The new advice: only those who are sick or in close contact with someone who has the flu should wear one this fall.