BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina is reinforcing overwhelmed hospitals as H1N1 deaths rise and flu cases swamp emergency rooms in and around the capital during the southern hemisphere winter.
Argentina has confirmed 21 deaths from the new strain of virus, also known as swine flu, putting the South American country third after Mexico and the United States in the number of fatal cases. The Health Ministry has confirmed 1,391 cases.
Medical authorities suspended non-urgent surgery in many urban hospitals to free up beds for flu cases.
The government also sent mobile clinics to poor neighborhoods and dedicated one hospital in the Malvinas Argentinas municipality outside Buenos Aires exclusively to flu cases.
The H1N1 virus is spreading rapidly in an area known as the conurbano, the densely populated working-class suburbs and slums that ring Buenos Aires where at least eight people have died from the new flu.
“Surgeries will be rescheduled in all hospitals in the conurbano, which is where the new flu virus is circulating extensively,” the health minister of Buenos Aires province, Claudio Zin, told reporters.
“Each year, 10 percent of the population gets the seasonal flu. If you add a similar percentage of people who are getting checked for the (new) flu, you can expect high demand at hospitals, which we have to battle.”
The country’s health minister, Graciela Ocana, recommended that Argentines allow space between each other when they line up to vote in midterm elections on Sunday. Voting is obligatory in Argentina.
Brazil’s health minister advised citizens to delay travel to Argentina and neighboring Chile in a move that drew criticism from Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.
In Chile, where seven people with H1N1 have died and 5,186 cases are confirmed, the government ordered public hospitals and clinics to attend to respiratory ailments and reschedule all nonemergency appointments.
Emergency room visits in Chile for respiratory ailments have tripled and are straining capacity, said Julio Montt, deputy secretary at the Health Ministry.
Waiting lines are seven hours in public hospitals and up to four hours in private clinics.
Late June and July are the peak of flu season in Argentina and Chile every year, with respiratory illnesses clogging up hospitals and clinics.
Additional reporting by Antonio de la Jara in Santiago and Helen Popper, Lucas Bergman and Guido Nejamkis in Buenos Aires; Editing by Peter Cooney
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