The strand of flu that caused worldwide tension and monopolized the resources of health officials in countries around the globe during the past month claimed its first life in Costa Rica on Saturday.
A 53-year-old man died in a San José hospital of complications resulting from the H1N1 virus. The victim, a father and musician who suffered from bronchitis and diabetes, was in fragile health from the outset, according to the Health Ministry.
Since the virus first surfaced in Mexico in mid-March, 65 people have died inNorth America and 6,000 people have been confirmed as carriers of the virus, according to the World Health Organization. Health officials in Mexico, however, post much higher flu victim numbers.
Costa Rican officials responded to the outbreak by launching a full-blown campaign to stem the spread of the disease, printing hundreds of educational posters, intercepting sick travelers at immigration posts and holding almost daily press conferences to keep the public informed.
“We are prepared for the worst,” said Health Minister María Luisa Avila a week after the flu reached Costa Rica. “But, at the same time, we want to make sure it doesn’t become worse.” (TT, May 1)
Unlike cases preceding him, the 53-year-old musician had not visited Mexico, nor did he have contact with anyone who had. He is believed to have passed the virus to three people close to him.
Costa Rican health officials, who have been mapping the path of the virus through confirmed and probable cases, were thrown a curve ball over the weekend when they learned that three students from Boston, MA, in the United States returned home with the H1N1 flu virus following an 11-day tour in Costa Rica.
While traveling throughout the country, 15 students, as well as three of the four adult chaperones, the bus driver and the tour guide, experienced symptoms of the flu.
According to parent and chaperone Donald Thea, who spoke to The Tico Times from Boston, all of the affected students have recovered and returned to school.
“It was a remarkably mild case compared to your typical seasonal flu,” said Thea, who also works as an infectious disease specialist at the Boston University School of Health.
“It was short-lived.”
The trip was coordinated with the Costa Rican Ministry of Culture and Youth. Participants, ranging in age from 15 to 25, distributed musical instruments to children affected by the January earthquake.
The group sent a letter to the Costa Rican Health Ministry when they learned of the flu cases, leaving officials here to determine where the virus could have spread. For them, tracing the path of potential infection has become more than a case of connect the dots since the group traveled all across the
country during its visit.
“They were in Escazú, Alajuela, back to Escazú …They were in Liberia… Escazú again, Alajuela… Guanacaste… Puntarenas,” said Health Minister María Avila, listing the places the musical group visited. “We don’t know if they infected anyone in Costa Rica.”
It is unclear whether the members of the group contracted the virus in Costa Rica or whether they brought it with them from Boston, health officials said.
The students arrived on April 16 and some of them began showing symptoms on April 23. As symptoms take between one half day and 10 days to surface after the time of infection, the virus could have been picked up in either country.
“There is no way to firmly establish when the infection happened,” said Thea. “It’s unknowable without additional testing.”
Thea said that despite working through coughs and sore throats, the students had a great experience and “we loved Costa Rica.”
As of May 12, the Health Ministry was reporting eight confirmed cases, two probable cases and 840 suspected cases. More than 700 cases have already been discarded.
According to Vice Minister of Health Ana Morice, flu season typically peaks in late May and early June, with the change of climate and the start of the rainy season. This, she said, places Costa Rica in a more vulnerable position in the face of a pandemic.
However, health officials here believe the rate of infection is slowing, and that Costa Rica will see fewer and fewer cases in the coming weeks, thanks to prevention measures.