IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Little boy at the center of a viral storm

The 5-year-old from a village in Mexico identified as the earliest swine flu case says, "I feel good."
Five-year-old Edgar Hernandez left, who was the first confirmed swine flu case in Mexico, is seen with his relatives at his home in La Gloria village, Veracruz state, Mexico, on Monday.PABLO SPENCER / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

One person who may have helped launch a rapidly spreading flu outbreak likes to draw hearts and flowers in the dirt outside his home. He likes to climb trees and give hugs and play with his soccer ball. And despite a persistent cough, he does not, he insists, feel sick.

"Not anymore," said Édgar Enrique Hernández, a smiling 5-year-old Mexican boy who tested positive for the deadly new strain of swine flu in this windswept valley surrounded by pig-breeding farms. "I feel good."

Although authorities have not determined that swine flu started in La Gloria, a village of about 2,500 people in the state of Veracruz, Édgar, who got sick in late March, is the earliest confirmed case of the virus in Mexico. He was just one of several hundred people from La Gloria and surrounding areas that fell ill around that time in an unexplained outbreak that left two children dead and prompted authorities to fumigate the entire village.

"I don't have words, I don't have answers," said Édgar's mother, María del Carmen Hernández, as she cried under a portrait of Jesus in her living room. "I feel terrible about all of this, because the people are thinking that this was all my son's fault. I don't think this is anyone's fault."

A mystery
This dust-strewn hamlet of dirt streets surrounded by desert cactus and scrub brush has become a focus of attention for the spread of the virus because of the prevalence of pig farms in the area, and because of Édgar. But the link is far from certain, and infectious-disease specialists stressed that no one has located a pig infected with this particular virus, so proximity between people and pigs may not be all that's required to contract the disease. The strain appears, in fact, to be Eurasian in origin, further adding to the mystery of where it began.

Miguel Angel Lezana, the head of Mexico's National Center for Epidemiology and Disease Control, said there was an outbreak of respiratory illness compatible with influenza in La Gloria between March 9 and April 10 — and that Édgar was a late case. Lezana said the boy showed symptoms on April 1, which was several days after two patients in California showed symptoms. Édgar was found to have been infected with swine flu after Canadian researchers confirmed the results April 23.

"We don't know where it started, California or Mexico," Lezana said.

Residents blame pig farms
Lezana said that none of Édgar's relatives worked near or at the area's industrial hog farms, and that tests of pigs so far have not shown any signs of the virus.

Maria del Carmen Hernandez, 34, mother of Edgar Hernandez, who according to Veracruz state Governor Miguel Herrera survived the swine flu, speaks to The Associated Press at her home in La Gloria, a village in Mexico's Veracruz state, Tuesday, April 28, 2009. Mexico's Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova downplayed claims Tuesday that the swine flu epidemic could have started in La Gloria, noting that of 35 mucous samples taken from respiratory patients there, only Edgar's came back positive, even though in March about 450 people were diagnosed with acute respiratory infections and sent home with antibiotics and surgical masks. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)Alexandre Meneghini / AP

Some residents of La Gloria blame the farms for their illnesses, saying the open-air waste pits dry out and the hot winds blow dust through nearby villages.

Scientists, however, say it is more likely that people who worked with pigs became infected and passed it on to other people. "Influenza in pigs is a respiratory disease, so there is much less risk associated with pig waste," said Andrew Pekosz, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. "The primary risk is from swine [flu]-infected people, and not swine or any swine products."

The farms around La Gloria are run by Granjas Carroll de Mexico, which is partly owned by Smithfield Foods, the largest producer of hogs in the United States. Smithfield said in a statement released Monday that it did not believe its operations were in any way connected to the outbreak because it had found "no clinical signs or symptoms of the presence of swine influenza in the company's swine herd or its employees at its joint ventures in Mexico."

'It happened in one week'
Residents said the children of La Gloria often come down with colds and flus, but this year was different. The outbreak, which began in mid-March, led more than 800 people to seek medical attention, said the mayor of nearby Perote, Guillermo Franco Vázquez. Lines formed outside the La Gloria health clinic with children and parents suffering from fevers and body aches.

"It happened in one week. It was worse than normal," said Valentino Fernández, 32, who was at the clinic with his sick daughter Tuesday. "It was the contamination from the farms, from the pigs. It comes in the air."

Vianney Guerra, a doctor at the clinic, said she was not authorized to talk about the flu outbreak. "We are taking preventive measures, we are informing the population, we are going house to house giving vaccines," she said. "Édgar is fine. He's in his house."

Mexican Health Secretary José Ángel Córdova said Monday that officials were not aware of swine flu during the outbreak in the La Gloria area. Once the new strain became known, he said, they retested some people and just one of them, a 5-year-old boy, tested positive for swine flu. But residents said two young children died of their illnesses last month and were buried in a flower-strewn cemetery in the village.

After the outbreak, authorities here fumigated the streets and houses, gave checkups to the patients and distributed vaccines, though officials have not identified a vaccine for swine flu. Health officials said 35 of the people who fell ill were tested for swine flu, so others might be infected.

One of the last to fall ill
Hernández, like Lezana, said her son Édgar was one of the last children in the village to fall ill. When he did, the disease moved quickly.

She walked him to the village health center, she said. Édgar was treated with amoxicillin and other medications, and after four bedridden days, his illness disappeared as quickly as it had started, she said.

After he had recovered, Hernández said, other doctors continued to come home to test Édgar. But they always said the boy was fine, she recalled.

Édgar's 3-year-old brother, Jonathan, was briefly sick but not as seriously, and his mother thought the worst was over. Because she does not have a car, a computer, a phone or a radio, and dislikes the television news because it broadcasts only tragedies, she heard very little about the disease that began killing people by mid-April in Mexico City and spreading around the globe.

Center of the storm
On Monday, all that changed. The governor of Veracruz, Fidel Herrera Beltrán, arrived at her one-bedroom concrete house at the intersection of two dirt streets and informed her that tests in the United States showed that Édgar had swine flu. The mayor of Perote has also visited, as well as an official from Granjas Carroll de Mexico, she said. She said one doctor continues to tell her that Édgar never had swine flu.

"I feel powerless," she said. "Why did the other children not have it and my child did? He was one of the last to get sick."

Édgar still has a cough, but he has regained his energy and on Tuesday he ran around happily.

"My children have always been healthy," she said. "My children are a blessing, they are a blessing from God."

Staff writer William Booth and special correspondent Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City and staff writers Shankar Vedantam and Ceci Connolly in Washington contributed to this report.