Uribe's flu reminds even presidents to wash their hands

Alvaro Uribe Velez, President of Colombia, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2003.
Alvaro Uribe Velez, President of Colombia, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2003. Guenter Schiffmann / MCT

CARACAS, Venezuela — As if the job weren't difficult enough, being a Latin American president suddenly has become more perilous.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has come down with swine flu — he was recuperating at home Tuesday in Bogota — becoming the second Latin American president, after Costa Rica's Oscar Arias, to be victimized by the virus in less than a month.

Now at least six other Latin American presidents who met Friday with Uribe, the day he began to suffer from the flu's telltale signs, are being watched for symptoms. One of those, Evo Morales of Bolivia, said he was taking the flu-fighting drug Tamiflu in hopes of warding off the illness.

The infection rate for Latin American presidents so far is more than 10 times the global average of less than 1 percent. However, the significance of two falling ill from the virus is more than just a statistical oddity, flu experts said. It's a reminder that everyday activities put everyone at risk of coming into contact with the virus.

"Presidents shake a lot of hands," said Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the World Health Organization. "The more people you come into contact with, the greater chance you'll contract the virus."

"Disease knows no boundary and respects no rank," said Daniel Epstein, the Pan American Health Organization's spokesman. "The best prevention — besides taking medicines when they become available — is an emphasis on personal hygiene, especially cleaning hands with soap and water. This goes for everybody, including presidents."

Latin America has the highest infection rate for swine flu in the world, with Brazil, Argentina and Chile among the leaders in flu incidence, according to the World Health Organization. That's no surprise, experts said. It's flu season in the Southern Hemisphere, where it's winter, and in tropical Northern Hemisphere countries such as Costa Rica and Colombia, where it's the rainy season.

Cases should start dropping in those areas as winter ends and should pick up in the United States in the next month or two, when the flu season begins to take hold there.

Worldwide, the World Health Organization reports, at least 209,438 people had been infected as of Aug. 23 since the first cases were reported in May in Mexico and San Diego. The number of reported deaths is 2,185.

Uribe's illness is a reminder of how virulent a flu infection can be. Some 20 senior government officials who've come into contact with Uribe have been screened for the H1N1 virus, which causes swine flu. Colombia's foreign minister was isolated for 20 hours Monday in China before he was cleared.

Uribe is working in virtual isolation, his spokesman said, and while he's expected to return to work Thursday, doctors advised him to wear a face mask when he received visitors, who also were required to wear the facial protection.

Uribe began to suffer from fever, headaches and backaches after Friday's meeting with the other presidents at Bariloche, Argentina, a renowned ski resort.

Presidents at the gathering included Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Chile's Michelle Bachelet, Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Peru's Alan Garcia. None has reported signs of flu yet.

"I've been with the minister" of health, Garcia said Monday. "I don't have any symptoms like a headache or fever."

On Tuesday, Morales said he was taking Tamiflu just in case.

"They gave me a checkup and told me that I don't have anything," Morales said.

Arias began to show virus symptoms Aug. 9, and doctors diagnosed him with swine flu two days later. He spent a week recovering at home and has returned to the job.

"He seemed none the worse for wear. He was pretty lively," said Epstein, of the Pan American Health Organization, who attended a ceremony with Arias last week in Costa Rica.

Health officials in Colombia and Costa Rica said they didn't know how Uribe and Arias had been infected, since they could have been suffering from the virus for up to seven days without showing symptoms.


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