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World News

April 28, 2009

Swine flu's ground zero? Residents say nearby farm

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.

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