LA GLORIA, Mexico (AP) — The people in this town of 3,000 high in the Veracruz mountains believe their community is ground zero for the swine flu epidemic, even if health officials deny it.
The town is home to Mexico's earliest confirmed case of swine flu, a 4-year-old boy who was among more than 450 residents who complained of respiratory problems. They blame contamination spread by pig waste at nearby breeding farms co-owned by a U.S. company. But the company says it found no sign of swine flu on its farms, and Mexican authorities haven't determined how or where the swine flu outbreak began.
As early as February, residents began complaining of unusually strong flu symptoms. They blamed a farm that lies upwind, five miles (8.5 kilometers) to the north. By late March, roughly one-sixth of the community of 3,000 began suffering from severe respiratory infections.
Local health officials and Federal Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova downplayed claims that the swine flu epidemic could have started in La Gloria, noting that of 30 mucous samples taken from respiratory patients there, only 4-year-old Edgar Hernandez's came back positive. That confirmation that the boy's virus was H1N1 — a strange new mix of pig, bird and human flu virus — wasn't made until last week, when signs of the outbreak elsewhere prompted a second look at his sample.
Cordova insists the rest of the community had suffered from H2N3, a common flu.
Animal health expert Peter Roeder, a consultant to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, said many possibilities exist for how the virus first jumped to humans, and that it could have happened months or even a year ago.
Roeder said it's possible someone tending the pigs could have passed a human influenza virus to a pig already infected with another type of swine flu, and then that pig could have also come into contact with a bird virus. Then, the new H1N1 virus formed could have been transmitted back to the workers.
But that's just a theory — and no one has any evidence that it happened in La Gloria.
"It's all surmise," Roeder said by phone from the Philippines. "The only thing that we know is that we have a virus that is transmitting between people and it is causing some concern, and it has some characteristics derived from swine viruses, avian viruses and human viruses. And that's all we know for sure."
Still, Jose Luis Martinez, a 34-year-old resident of La Gloria, said he made the connection the minute he learned about the outbreak on the news and heard a description of the symptoms: fever, coughing, joint aches, severe headache and, in some cases, vomiting and diarrhea.
"When we saw it on the television, we said to ourselves, 'This is what we had,"' he said Monday. "It all came from here. ... The symptoms they are suffering are the same that we had here."
Martinez and Bertha Crisostomo, a liaison between the villagers and the municipal government of Perote to which La Gloria belongs, say half of the people from the town live and work in Mexico City most of the week, and could easily have spread the swine flu in the capital, where the largest number of cases have been reported.
The new swine flu strain suspected in 152 deaths in Mexico has now spread to at least six countries, and crossed new borders Tuesday with the first cases confirmed in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region.
Granjas Carroll de Mexico, half-owned by Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, Inc., has 16 farms in the area. Smithfield spokeswoman Keira Ullrich said the company has found no clinical signs or symptoms of the presence of swine influenza in its swine herd or its employees working at its joint ventures anywhere in Mexico.
But residents say they have been bothered for years by the fetid smell of one the farms, which lies upwind of the community, and they suspect their water and air has been contaminated by waste. Local health workers intervened in early April, sealing off the town of La Gloria and spraying to kill flies people said were swarming around their homes.
When Associated Press journalists on Monday entered a Granjas Carroll farm that has been the focus of community complaints, the cars were sprayed with water. Manager Victor Ochoa required the visitors to shower and don white overalls, rubber boots, goggles and masks and step through disinfectant before entering any of the 18 warehouses where 15,000 pigs are kept.
Ochoa showed the journalists a black plastic lid that covered a swimming pool-size cement container of pig feces to prevent exposure to the outside air.
"All of our pigs have been adequately vaccinated and they are all taken care of according to current sanitation rules," Ochoa said. "What happened in La Gloria was an unfortunate coincidence with a big and serious problem that is happening now with this new flu virus."
Martinez insists that most of the eight farms near La Gloria do not follow the same sanitary rules, instead leaving waste to decompose in the open air and with no filters to protect it from seeping into groundwater. He alleged that they also let some of their dead pigs decompose in cement cellars whose doors are left open aboveground.
Ochoa denied Martinez's claims and offered to take reporters to any of his company's 16 farms.
"Pick a number a number between one and 16, and I'll take you there," he said.
Martinez said residents have been fighting for years to force the company to improve their pig-waste management.
Mexican Agriculture Department officials said Monday that its inspectors found no sign of swine flu among pigs around the farm in Veracruz, and that no infected pigs have been found yet anywhere in Mexico. But Ochoa, the farm manager, said no one from the government has inspected his farm for swine flu.
Dr. Alejandro Escobar Mesa, deputy director for the control and prevention of disease for the state of Veracruz, blames the local epidemic of common flu in La Gloria on a combination of viral and bacterial illnesses, caused by an unusually dry climate.
"The dust dries up the mucous membranes and facilitates environmental conditions for the transmission of illnesses," Escobar said.
But residents here say they are certain that Edgar Hernandez was not the only swine flu victim in their town. Concepcion Llorente, a first-grade teacher in La Gloria, says authorities still owe the town some answers.
"They said that what we had here was an atypical flu, but if the boy tested positive for swine flu, where did he get it from?" she said.