Category Archives: Health

Health issues in Chile

What’s Hers is Mine, said the Hospital to the Bank…

Check Writing

Photo credit: CarbonNYC

Got a shock this morning… It started out as just another Friday—until I checked my bank balance to see if any of my clients had made a deposit, and Pow! Virtual sucker-punch. Chile’s hospital policies and Chile’s bank policies were at odds—care to guess whose dime—make that gamba (100 pesos)—took the hit? Continue reading

Some Serious Jonesin’ Going On

Pharmacy Rx symbol

Image via Wikipedia

I’m sitting across from my friend Sheila at a booth at Liguria, a favorite bar/restaurant in Providencia, and I can’t help but stare at the bags under her eyes. It’s the first time I’ve seen her in months, and she’s clearly on edge. Distracted, jumpy. She fidgets with the menu. Can’t make up her mind. Doesn’t know what she wants. And frankly, she looks like hell. Continue reading

First Dumb Move of 2010

Ozone o Ozone… wherefore art thou Chilean Ozone Layer?!
Fun in the summer sun ain’t all it’s cracked up to be… as I “sorely” discover yet once again!

2010 kicked off calmly enough, family-style with the in-laws at our house: dinner, hugs all around at midnight, a bit of the Valparaíso fireworks on TV, and off they went. We usually visit friends afterward, but this year, after all the traveling we’ve done in the past few weeks (more about that to come), we decided to just kick back, stay in, and head to the beach the next morning.

Just let me say that for all that I miss a traditional white Christmas, I have to admit that I really do love a nice southern hemisphere summer-time New Years!

So off we went at midday on a beautiful January 1, tooling down the highway, windows open, breeze blowing, sun shining… and completely oblivious to those mean-spirited UV nasties beating down on my unsuspecting, unprotected, wintry-white arm. Shortly after arriving at the beach, my tingling arm warned me that I was going to regret my hour-long carefree, bare-armed jaunt. Any doubts were cast aside 12 hours later when my arm turned that shade of red that is highly desirable in ripe watermelons—but not so much on body parts. I’m no wimp when it comes to sunburns (too much experience), but this really zapped my zip and made me want to kick my own backside for being so dumb.

I should know better. I DO know better. The sun is not my friend. I learned that the hard way many years ago as a freckle-faced, red-headed, fair-skinned young teen trying to keep up the tanning pace with my Italian-Native American beach buddy. While she effortlessly toasted up an ever-deepening golden tan, I just got frecklier and redder, redder, redder. Even developed some kind of allergy to the sun that turned me into a great believer in long-sleeved shirts and generous applications of the strongest sunscreen available.

Oh, I’ve had my involuntary lapses over the years, most notably in Chile, where the sun is particularly sneaky and entirely unforgiving. Cool Pacific breezes trick you into forgetting the sun is summer-hot and UV-loaded. Midday strolls through springtime vineyards can turn short-haired gringa winewriters into literal rednecks in no time (experience speaking).

I remember a Miami-born-&-bred Cuban-American friend who refused to join the filtro-fest as the rest of us repeatedly slathered on the sunscreen at the beach one February (peak summer), because “I’ve spent my whole life in the sun”—even though the local morenos (dark skinned folks) in the group tried to warn him. And man did he repent and lament for the rest of the weekend!

Blame it on the anemic ozone layer; blame it on the proximity of the sun at this particular latitude; blame it on whatever you like, but do, and I mean DO, take the Chilean sun seriously.

So now that  school’s out, surf’s up, sun’s out… Stock up on sun screen and:
Happy Summer Chile!

Ya Pasamos Agosto!

We made it through August… Let the fiesta begin!

Chileans—especially the older ones—have a thing about August, a kind of a wary-scary dread accompanied by the increasing mantra-like use of the expression “si pasamos agosto…” (if we get through August), Continue reading

Youth & Alcohol in Chile “Trago a Quina” Part 1

TVN-Trago a quinaThis is a quickie post to let you all know that tonight National Chilean Television (TVN)’s Informe Especial program will air a report on youth drinking in Chile… okay, you say, and…?

The “and” is that I will be on the show.  A couple months ago the producers of the program contacted me as a sommelier and asked me to gather a group of sommeliers to for a tasting (that means evaluation) of the products that will be featured on the show.

By the time they got to me, they had already interviewed the young people (teens and early 20s) that gather in parks to drink–often heavily–on weekends. They found that they usually drink “coolers” and rum, so they bought the same products most often consumed, sent them to be chemically analyzed, then took the results to the medical community (neurologists, I believe), and then came to us, the sommeliers, for a blind tasting… man was that rough work… but we did it… and the results will be aired tonight right after the soap “Donde está Elisa,” which means about 11:40.

For anyone outside the Chilean television viewing range who would like to see it, you can watch it on Internet at

You can also check out the preview (which shows me making faces) at

By the way, the title “Trago a quina” refers to bottles of rum sold for less than $500 Chilean pesos (less than $1 US!)… which should give you an idea of what this is all about.

I’ll write up Part 2 after the show… unless, of course, I die of embarrassment while watching it!

AH1N1 in Chile, a Scientist’s Perspective

A few days ago, a Chilean biologist commented on an earlier post in this series (see the original discussion here) and I asked him if he would be willing to answer some questions from a scientist’s perspective and in a way that would go beyond the official statements issued by the Ministry of Health.

Pablo Astudillo, the biologist behind Astu’s Science Blog, agreed and here is our interview.

MS: My understanding is that the disease was originally thought to be the same Swine Flu that is commonly passed among pigs, but that the name has been changed to AH1N1 because it is in fact a human virus (from what I have read, only human viruses are classed as Type A and are not transmitted between humans and animals). Your comment left me wondering if it is a case of the same virus adapting/mutating from animal to human, or is it a case of more advanced research revealing that it had been misidentified originally?

PA: OK, from the beginning… The AH1N1 virus did not originate from humans or birds. This virus was born from a succession of events that allowed genetic material to be recombined (which means, in laymen’s terms, that several pieces of DNA are “copied and pasted”). These events can happen in many organisms in which two or more viruses are able to enter. Pigs have this characteristic; they present two specific receptors in the tracheal epithelium cells that are recognized by human and avian influenza viruses.

The AH1N1 virus originated in pigs in such a way, but was then transmitted to humans. This has been happening for a long time, and it is believed that events like this have been responsible for many pandemic influenzas, including the Spanish flu in 1918.

In theory, the AH1N1 virus can infect ANY animal with receptors that are able to recognize the virus in cells from the tracheal epithelium. I don’t know if cats and dogs have these receptors. One myth that has to be corrected is: this virus is not new… it is evolving constantly.

MS: You said that the majority of cases in Chile are asymptomatic… so how were they identified? If the flu produces no symptoms, is it dangerous? What is the greater concern about the transmission of asymptomatic diseases? Along the same line, will contracting the virus allow the person to develop immunities for a worse or related case of the flu?

PA: I am not familiar with the clinical features of the AH1N1 influenza, but some things can be discussed. As soon as Chile’s health authorities identify a person with AH1N1 influenza, they contact the relatives and friends who have been in touch with the infected person and run tests to determine whether they are positive for the virus. That’s why we have many positive asymptomatic cases.

The greater concern to authorities is, obviously, the public impact of having too many cases, especially when we are a few months from a presidential election.

For medical doctors, the concern is having an overloaded public hospital system. Santiago’s winter season is complicated; the cold, the viruses and the pollution create a scenario where many old people and children die from pulmonary diseases.

To scientists, the concern is with respect to the opportunity of the virus to evolve and develop a new mutation that can be dangerous to humans. Nonetheless, some evolutionary biologists claim that such viruses are quickly eliminated from the ecological niche because they kill their hosts. However, if a virus produces more than a cold and fever, obviously we have to be prepared.

Finally, indeed, becoming infected with this virus will allow humans to produce antibodies that can be useful in future infections. But if a new strain of the virus harbors a mutation in the protein recognized by the antibody produced, the said antibody is useless.

MS: You said the index case is the small boy with no known direct exposure. What does “index case” mean in laymen’s terms? What is the scientific concern here? From what I have read, flu viruses are transmitted through airborne contact; could he simply have sat next to the wrong person on the bus? Or are they concerned that there is another form of transmission that is not understood?

PA: In this case, the “index case” refers to the first patient identified. The virus is transmitted through contact, from saliva, sneezes, kisses, etc. But you should ask a medical doctor for detailed information. The virus does not fly through the air. I mentioned the concerns above.

MS: You say the public health system “claims” we are ready… do you agree? It sounds like you have your doubts…

PA: At this point, that question is irrelevant. We have 199 confirmed cases, making us the 5th country in the world** with more cases of AH1N1 influenza. The system claimed that “we are ready,” but the explosive increase in cases says otherwise. [**At the time this was posted, Chile had just dropped to 6th place.]

MS: Why, in your opinion, does Chile have so many cases? Apparently we are number 2 behind Mexico in Latin America. I wonder how much has to do with (1) more travel means more exposure (although I have no way to prove that Chileans travel abroad more than other Latinos), and (2) how much it has to do with more advanced methods of identification….

PA: Well… The authorities claimed that we had suffered the same as New York: we had infected children in schools. Children are more exposed to other children while in class, playing games, going to parties, etc. That explains the explosive increase in positive cases. The parents and relative of those children then quickly became infected.

In fact, a few days ago the authorities said that around 75% of the cases were children related with the outbreak in schools of Vitacura, Santiago. But with 199 cases, it is more difficult to establish relationships. My guess is that it has nothing to do with Chilean people traveling more often than other South Americans.

About the identification methods, one thing that Chilean authorities claimed was that we have more advanced and faster methods for detection of the virus. That’s a political lie. The diagnostic method is simple, fast, reliable, and, above all, a standard procedure in every university with biology or molecular biology laboratories. Claiming such a thing is not only a lie, but also a vain way to explain the irresponsibility of the authorities. As soon as the first cases were detected in schools, the authorities should have suspended school activities.

The Original Posts for Swine Flu in Chile:

May 28, 2009: AH1N1 (Swine Flu) in Chile: Update Part 4

May 22, 2009: Swine Flu in Chile Part 3: Update on Chile

April 29, 2009:  Swine Flu in Chile Part 2: Update on Chile

April 28, 2009:  Swine Flu in Chile Part 1:  So far, so good

AH1N1 (Swine Flu) in Chile: Update Part 4

A month ago we here in Chile thought we were in good shape. As the numbers of AH1N1—then called Swine Flu—soared in the US and Mexico, Chile remained flu-free. How things change in a month’s time.

The latest update from the Ministry of Health (6PM on Thursday, May 28 ) reports 199 confirmed cases, 2 serious, no deaths. Almost all of the cases are confined to the Metropolitan Region (Santiago), and the majority those affected are school-age children with mild cases; many in fact are asymptomatic.

It is important to bear in mind that it is winter here in Chile and we are in the midst of the normal flu season. Furthermore, Santiago is prone to significantly high amounts—oh who are we kidding—let’s just be honest and say disgusting—amounts of air pollution during the winter months. We usually get some respite when it rains, but because this is an abnormally dry winter, the air quality is much worse than normal, further adding to situations of respiratory distress and apparently lowering resistance to illness.The Ministry has stated that 90% of the flu cases reported in Chile have been defined as AH1N1 and that this strain is replacing seasonal flu.

There have been no deaths to date, although two severe cases have been reported. Both patients—one in Santiago and one in Puerto Montt—are connected to artificial respirators.

The first and most widely discussed serious case is that of a 38-year-old woman who is currently in a Santiago hospital suffering from Catastrophic Respiratory Failure. The severity of systems in a woman thought otherwise healthy originally baffled the authorities, but it was later discovered that she had been following an alternative diet that involves taking Candlenut (Aleurites moluccana), also known as Kukui and Indian Walnut (Nuez de la India in Spanish). This Asian plant has been used medicinally for centuries, although it is known to have toxic properties. Ingesting sustained doses over a period of time as a diet not only lowered her caloric intake to dangerous levels (one source said 600–800 calories per day), but also altered her immune system and placed her at particular risk for this virus. The second severe case is a man in Puerto Montt who has presented bilateral pneumonia.

Latest Governmental Actions

New actions taken this week including announcing that public schools will not close their doors and that more effective hand-washing campaigns will be implemented in the schools. Liquid soap will now be provided in all school bathrooms (flip that around and the logic implies that there was no soap before… which, by the way, is not at all unusual in public places).

The health screening procedures in the airports (thermal scanners, etc.) will be removed from Chile’s ports of entry as of June 1, citing that the virus has already established itself within the country and further screening is therefore ineffective.

The World Health Organization figures as of May 28, 2009:

15,510 cases worldwide in 53 countries with 99 deaths.

Current Top 10:

US                   7927 / 11 deaths
Mexico         4910 / 85
Canada         1118 / 2
Japan             364
UK                  203
Chile              165  (**now 199)
Australia      147
Spain              143
Panama        107
Argentina      37

**The number of cases reported in the UK has recently surpassed the number in Chile, which since dropped from fifth to sixth place in reported cases worldwide.

The Original Posts for Swine Flu in Chile:

May 22, 2009: Swine Flu in Chile Part 3: Update on Chile

April 29, 2009:  Swine Flu in Chile Part 2: Update on Chile

April 28, 2009:  Swine Flu in Chile Part 1:  So far, so good

For a Related Post, see:

May 29, 2009: AH1N1 in Chile, a Scientist’s Perspective