July 7, 2009 / 12:45 AM / 10 years ago

Argentines question government as flu spreads

* Doubts over economic data extend to flu outbreak

* Argentine death toll third highest in the world (Updates with health minister’s comments)

By Damian Wroclavsky

BUENOS AIRES, July 6 (Reuters) - Argentines are questioning the government’s handling of an H1N1 flu outbreak that has killed 60 people amid confusion over the number of cases and accusations that officials acted too slowly.

President Cristina Fernandez has sought to halt the spread of the new swine flu strain at the height of the Southern Hemisphere winter by closing schools and letting public sector workers take time off.

But critics have chided her for going ahead with a congressional election last week and flying to Washington over the weekend to join a diplomatic mission to reinstate the ousted Honduran president while the flu death toll mounts.

"The government’s clearly not handling this well," said Leopoldo Fernandez Suarez, an engineer who has sent his two children to Patagonia to get away from the capital and its suburbs where most cases have been reported.

"I don’t pay any attention to what they’re saying. I don’t have any confidence in them," he added.

A two-year controversy over accusations the government is manipulating key economic data for political gain has also fueled doubts about the extent of the outbreak of H1N1, which first emerged in Mexico and the United States earlier this year.

In less than a week, the Argentine death toll has more than doubled to 60, the third-highest confirmed H1N1 toll after the United States and Mexico.

The government has confirmed 2,800 cases of the virus, but the numbers have caused confusion.

A day after Argentina’s mid-term vote, Graciela Ocana quit as health minister and some media said she had faced opposition within the government to her proposals to combat the outbreak.

Soon after taking over, her replacement Juan Manzur was quoted as saying the number of unconfirmed cases of H1N1 could be as high as 100,000. It is not a confusing number for health experts, who know that in any flu outbreak not every patient gets tested and that the virus usually infects more than 10 percent of the population.

U.S. health officials, for instance, say at least a million North Americans are likely infected, even though the officially confirmed global toll is 94,512.

But the way the remarks were made fueled confusion and concerns over the official response. Manzur said on Monday that of the 100,000 cases of regular flu reported, around 90 percent are believed to be H1N1.

The government has not declared a national emergency because of the flu’s spread. Some local officials have declared emergencies, including the mayor of Buenos Aires and several provincial governments, allowing them to make decisions to close public places and access government funds.

On Monday, a group of theater owners said they were closing theaters for 10 days after audiences dropped off sharply.

Fernandez is struggling with 30 percent approval ratings and trying to recover from a setback in last week’s election that saw her lose her majority in Congress.

Andrea, a 44-year-old lawyer who did not want to give her last name, cited the government’s handling of economic data as a reason why she does not believe Fernandez.

Private economists and analysts say the government overstates economic growth and understates inflation, poverty levels and joblessness for political gain, a charge Fernandez has rejected.

"There is a lot of manipulation and disinformation. It all started with the government statistics," Andrea said. (Writing by Kevin Gray, editing by Vicki Allen)

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