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Norfolk man at the heart of swine flu outbeak

PUBLISHED: 07:00 30 April 2009 | UPDATED: 09:14 06 July 2010

A Norfolk man travelling in Mexico has given the EDP a unique insight into life in the country at the centre of the swine flu outbreak.

Jonathan Lewis, a University of East Anglia graduate, spoke to ordinary people in the city of Oaxaca, where he estimates nearly half the population are wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from the potentially fatal infection.

A Norfolk man travelling in Mexico has given the EDP a unique insight into life in the country at the centre of the swine flu outbreak.

Jonathan Lewis, a University of East Anglia graduate, spoke to ordinary people in the city of Oaxaca, where he estimates nearly half the population are wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from the potentially fatal infection.

Mr Lewis, 27, who has travelled from Mexico City, the centre of the outbreak, to Oaxaca, about 225 miles south-east of the capital, said there was a lot of confusion and uncertainly about swine flu.

“Some of the poorer people aren't even fully aware about it now. They don't have much idea about it and they don't know the details,” he said.

He spoke as Germany and Austria became the latest countries to confirm swine flu cases and the first person outside Mexico to die of the disease was confirmed as a 23-month-old Mexican boy who had travelled with his family to Houston, Texas.

Swine flu is suspected of killing more than 150 people in Mexico and infecting 2,400. The World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed at least 114 cases in nine countries, over half of them in the US, and called another emergency meeting, saying there was no sign of the spread slowing.

Meanwhile the number of confirmed cases rose to five in Britain and four in Spain. In addition to a couple in Scotland who got swine flu on their Mexican honeymoon, new British cases included a 12-year-old girl in Torbay, Devon.

The other two cases were adults in London and in Birmingham. All three had visited Mexico, were receiving anti-viral drugs and were responding well to treatment.

Fears that the infection had reached East Anglia proved unfounded after a woman in Chelmsford suspected to have disease was given the all-clear by doctors.

In Mexico City the mayor said the outbreak seemed to be stabilising and he was considering easing the city-wide shutdown that closed schools, restaurants, concert halls and sports arenas.

Egypt slaughtered all its pigs and the central African nation of Gabon became the latest nation to ban pork imports, despite assurances that swine flu was not related to eating pork.

Cuba eased its flight ban, deciding just to block flights coming in from Mexico, and Asian nations greeted returning airport travellers with teams of medical workers and carts of disinfectants.

Mr Lewis, an ecology graduate, who grew up in Worstead, near North Walsham, is a fortnight into a year-long round the world trip with his girlfriend Christy Phillips, 29, also from Norfolk.

“When we were in Mexico City there was a lot more panic there. We've been here about five days and over the last couple of days people have been handing out masks and information,” he said.

Mr Lewis, a former Stalham High School and Norwich City College student, estimated between 40 and 50 per cent of people in Oaxaca were wearing masks.

“The streets here don't seem to be noticeably quieter but I got a sense of people rushing to get to where they want to go, rather than taking it slow as-per-usual in Mexico,” he said.

“The usually full-on Mexican greeting seems to be less tactile and I think people are keeping their distance more than usual. Nearly all of the workers in contact with the public are wearing the masks and are obviously aware of the risks of dealing with the public.

“I don't think many people really have much of an idea about what's going on. Communication from the Mexican government has not been great. I don't think they want to be blamed for spreading the disease; they don't want to cause panic or admit liability and they are worried about the impact on tourism.”

Mr Lewis said he was not overly concerned for his safety. “It's hard to tell whether it's media hype or reality,” he said.

“We keep reading about people who have come back from Mexico with swine flu so it's definitely worrying, but if you look at the statistics for how many people die of flu each year it's perhaps not quite so concerning.

“We're now aware of the symptoms and if we start showing any of them we will go straight to the doctor and hope for the best.”

However, the couple have no plans to cut short their travels.

Miss Phillips, a fellow UEA graduate who grew up in Dereham, said: “My mum wants us to come home, but I think we would be in more danger if we went to Mexico City to get a flight home and were stuck in a confined space for 11 hours.

“If you hear anyone cough or sneeze it does make you think about it. We're keeping an eye on our own health and on the news. Hopefully the worst is over.”

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