Cholera menace returns to Mexico: Poor hygiene underlies a serious outbreak of the disease, reports Phil Davison from Mexico City

AT THE state paediatric hospital in Mexico City's humble La Villa barrio, the medical advice and drawings on the walls are simple, indeed childlike. The aim is to get the message across to the district's poverty-stricken and often illiterate population that cholera is back and can kill.

Health officials say there have been more than 6,000 cases of cholera in Mexico this year and 108 deaths. The La Villa district has been among the worst hit in the capital of 20-odd million souls. Given Mexico's still-backward water supply system and poor hygiene, the recurrence of the disease that appeared to have died out in the Fifties poses a serious threat.

'Boil water before drinking it,' says one warning in the La Villa hospital lobby, beneath a crayon drawing of a steaming saucepan. 'Wash your vegetables with water and soap,' says another, a tip unlikely to do much for the flavour of salads. The warnings reflect public service ads on radio and television telling Mexicans not to eat their beloved tacos from street stands or anything fried in the fritangas (frying pans) of millions of taco stands around the country.

It's rather like asking an Englishman to give up his cup of tea in his local cafe. Not surprisingly, the warnings are going largely unheeded and the taco stands seem as busy as ever.

Indeed, right outside the door of the paediatric hospital, and catering specifically for its visitors and employees, is a typical, yellow-canopied taco stand. Here, the warnings on the hospital's walls are blatantly ignored by the grey-haired taco lady and clients peckish after queuing for hours to have their children treated for whatever ailment, in some cases cholera symptoms.

It is the usual system. The lady has a single pink bucket of water to clean her half-dozen plastic plates. After each client, she wipes the plate with a cloth dampened from the bucket which she may well use all day without changing the water. She stuffs each taco by hand and the client eats them the same way.

Dr Robles Rivero of the La Villa hospital said he had treated 30 cholera cases last month, 22 of them children, but that none had died. Dr Rivero believes Mexico has the disease under control. But he is a state employee and echoes the government line. Others are not so sure.

Most Mexicans do boil their water for drinking. But they tend to get their liquid intake from soft drinks. Foreign residents often filter water several times as well as boiling it, in an effort to avoid diseases such as the dreaded Montezuma's Revenge - a form of diarrhoea alluding to an Indian emperor's mythical curse on foreign conquerors - or ubiquitous parasites.

A recent Health Ministry study revealed that no less than 80 per cent of the food served up on the streets of the capital contained fecal bacteria. In many backward areas, particularly on the outskirts where Indian and other peasants arrive daily seeking work and squatting in any free space they can find, the toilet is the nearest relatively private spot. Fecal bacteria is part of the city air and 80 per cent of residents were recently reported to suffer from some form of parasite. Locals build up anti-bodies. Foreign visitors often suffer more.

'In areas where there are no toilet facilities, people should cover their excrement with lime or earth,' the Health Ministry recently advised.

The Health Minister, Jesus Kumate, admitted last week that the Rio Suchiate, which runs along the Mexico-Guatemala border, was contaminated. Indicating that the contamination also threatened the nearby former British colony of Belize, he said that country, Guatemala and Mexico would hold regular meetings to discuss the problem.

It was on the banks of the Suchiate river that the first Mexican cholera case was discovered in June 1991. The authorities fear Central American refugees, who flock across the river on rafts or the inner tubes of lorry tyres as part of their long, illegal odyssey towards the United States, may have helped carry cholera north.

The issue hit the headlines recently when Argentina banned its citizens from returning from Mexico with jugs of 'miracle water' from a village in the Mexican state of Queretaro. Word had spread throughout Latin America that the water from a well in the village of Tlacote could cure anything from epilepsy to cancer or Aids. Argentine travel agents arranged package tours to Tlacote from Buenos Aires, with 17 gallons of 'miracle water' per person guaranteed. Several Aids and cancer victims were among those to make the pilgrimage.

But the Argentine government, as well as that of Uruguay, feared the water could be cholera-contaminated and barred returning pilgrims from bringing in the jugs. Some were coming with several dozen jugs each. When refused permission to bring it in, they staged a sit-in at the Ezeiza international airport in Buenos Aires, finally forcing a partial backdown by the government. It promised to examine the water and allow it in if it was not contaminated.

The owner of the 'miracle' well, Jesus Chahin, vehemently denied it was cholera-contaminated. On the contrary, it may be able to cure the disease, he told a visiting reporter. He and his dog were jointly responsible for discovering its 'healing qualities,' he said. His dog had been dying until it lapped up water from the well and staged a miraculous return to health. The water also cured a back injury he had been suffering from through a faulty golf swing, Mr Chahin said.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
An asteroid is set to pass so close to Earth it will be visible with binoculars
news
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project