BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Reuters) - A small Mexican boy crossed into the United States with his family and died, forever changing the Texas border town of Brownsville.
The toddler unknowingly brought with him H1N1 swine flu when he entered on April 4. He took ill four days later and died on Monday, the first person to succumb on U.S. soil.
Brownsville is Texas’s most southern city, a place battered by hurricanes and poverty and home to 172,000 people, most of Hispanic origins but born in the United States.
“I will be staying here for a while,” said Santiago Perez, 18, from Matamoros, Mexico, who crosses the porous border to attend Pace High School in Brownsville. “Better safe than sorry.”
The nearly two-year-old boy was from Mexico City. He died in a Houston hospital, having crossed the border in Brownsville on a trip to visit relatives.
An average of 7,255 people cross the bridge from Mexico each day, many of them drawn to jobs, shops and classes in the city by the banks of the Rio Grande River.
Martin Perez, who crossed from Matamoros on Wednesday to shop at a duty-free shop on Elizabeth Street in downtown Brownsville, wore a surgical mask, and so did his two sons.
“I‘m surprised not to see very many people on this side wearing them,” Perez said before heading back across to Mexico. The Mexican army is handing out masks to residents in Matamoros, Perez said.
For Brownsville residents the worry is immediate.
“We are very much concerned of course,” said Mayor Patricio Ahumada. “Right now we’re trying to find out how long the child was in Brownsville and if there’s any need for concern.”
On Wednesday, Texas Governor Rick Perry issued an emergency declaration for the state and raised the possibility of closing the U.S.-Mexico border to stem the spread of the flu, a nearly unprecedented move.
“That obviously would be an option but again, I think playing the what-if game of escalation without good indicators ... is a little premature,” Perry told reporters in the state capital Austin.
Perry’s office later said that no moves were imminent, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate committee on Wednesday that a border closure “has not been merited by the facts.”
“It would have very, very little marginal benefit in terms of containing the actual outbreak of virus within our own country,” she told the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix; Writing by Chris Baltimore, Editing by Howard Goller