Lifestyle & Belief

Mobilizing against swine flu in Oaxaca


This photo essay takes a brief look at the Aurelio Valdivieso Hospital in Oaxaca, Mexico. The hospital is thought to be home to the first documented death of a patient from what would soon come to be known as “swine flu.” The patient, Adela Maria Gutierrez, presented with several symptoms that the doctors could not readily diagnose. She soon died but, thanks to the vigilance of the medical staff at the hospital, a greater disaster was averted when they recognized they were dealing with a new threat and notified the federal and state government. What followed was a rapid and well documented response by the federal government in Mexico City, but more unknown is that the state of Oaxaca served as a model for containment, rapidly mobilizing its “health brigades,” who tracked down any people who may have come into contact with infected persons, diagnosed them in the field and got them to clinics for treatment. The rapid response lead to a quick containment in Oaxaca, and there were only 4 deaths related to swine flu, when many experts agree, there could have been many more. In order to reach those who were potentially infected, the health brigades had to delve into the area surrounding Oaxaca city, which is one of the more impoverished regions of Mexico and much of which lacks basic infrastructure like paved roads or modern plumbing.

The way I came upon this story was by fleeing the general chaos that swine flu was causing in Mexico City. I wanted to get away from the intense paranoia and fear that had gripped the largest city in the Western Hemisphere. At the point that I arrived in Oaxaca, nobody really knew what to make of swine flu, but all of my sources were telling me that I should consider getting out of Mexico all together, because all indications were saying that it was going to be a major killer. So far, in the grand scheme of things, this has not proven to be correct. However, at the time, the main worry I had was that I would get trapped in Mexico, due to either a border closure or the airport closures that the government was threatening.

Becoming infected with swine flu was never really my main concern, even when I entered the advanced respiratory distress wing of the hospital to shoot a part of this essay. I have a background as an EMT, and have worked extensively on ambulances, which has not only lead me to be aware of sanitary procedures, but has also led to a certain understanding within myself, that when my time comes, I have very little power over it, whether it be by the swine flu, or being hit by a bus crossing the road. I did however worry that I would bring the infection to my loved ones if I were to come in contact with it while working. I had a big scare when my girlfriend developed some flu symptoms during the shooting of this essay, but it luckily turned out to be a common cold.

A San Francisco native, I studied photojournalism at SFSU, where I was surrounded and inspired by a group of amazing colleagues who push me to this day. During my university years, I often found myself drawn to take a semester away from school to work on social documentary projects throughout Latin America, mainly focusing on workers rights and social injustice. My inspiration for this was always my parents, my mother being a first-generation immigrant from Trinidad and my father being a paramedic and staunch union activist. During a long break from school, I drove an old 1972 VW bug across Mexico and landed in Mexico City, where I am based to this day. My current Mexico work has recently been recognized by Photographer of the Year International, The National Press Photographer’s Association, Photo District News and the San Francisco Bay Area Press Photographers Association. I am a 2008 Eddie Adams Workshop Alumni.