LA Times looks at H1N1’s roots, early days

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Los Angeles Times reporter Tracy Wilkinson dug deeper into the story of the discovery of H1N1 in the Oaxaca hospital where the first reported death occurred. Wilkinson tells the story of a panicked hospital, an enterprising local newspaper, and a story of  “atypical pneumonia” that broke a week before Mexico acknowledged a national health crisis.

In Valdivieso General’s busy emergency room, Dr. Serafin Lopez Concha was hours into his shift on the Thursday before Easter when Gutierrez staggered in. She was gasping for breath, her oxygen-starved fingers turning blue.

Gutierrez, 39, had been sick for a week. She had continued to work as a far-roaming door-to-door census-taker for the tax bureau until the Easter week break. She had seen three or four doctors, Lopez recalled. They’d told her she had a throat infection and given her medicine, but she only got worse.

“She was in very serious condition,” said Lopez, a Oaxaca native who took charge of Gutierrez’s case.

AHCJ resourcesAHCJ resources for covering flu, pandemics and preparedness

Gutierrez died four days after being admitted to the hospital. A Canadian lab would later confirm she was suffering from H1N1. The scrappy newspaper whose reporters sneaked into the hospital to find out what all the fuss was about ended up helping to break one of the year’s biggest health stories.

And Alfredo Martinez de Aguilar, publisher of the Despertar newspaper, is feeling vindicated. The paper (its name means “to wake up”) was founded just a year ago, with $3 million from a group of investors, 100 employees and a commitment to a different kind of journalism. It has taken on inept officials, money launderers and corrupt cops.

Martinez prides himself on his “intelligence unit,” the less-than-orthodox team of staffers who might pose as something other than journalists if that’s what it takes.

And in this case, Martinez says, that is what it took. He wonders whether local health authorities would have informed the public of the emergency if his reporters had not gone into the hospital and dug up the truth.

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