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Monday, January 09, 2012

Dengue Fever-- Something You Don't Want To Bring Back From A Vacation

I didn't buy any souvenirs on my recent trip to the Yucatán. Mostly what they sell visitors to Mérida are hammocks and Guayabera shirts. I took something else home instead-- Dengue fever, an infectious tropical disease transmitted by mosquitoes. It's different from the deadly dengue hemorrhagic fever, which I don't have. The one I have takes a week or two and you're better... or so my doctor says.

I'd like to say I got it traipsing around the jungle investigating the connections between Mormon polygamists and the worship of the Mayan and Aztec feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl. The Mormons, who were led to Mexico as a way of preserving their polygamist lifestyle 125 years ago by Mitt Romney's great grandfather, notorious polygamist Miles Park Romney, believe that Jesus Christ came to America after he was resurrected and was remembered by the Mexican Indians as Quetzalcoatl. The second president of the Mormon church, John Taylor, who sent the Romney family down to Mexico wrote, "The story of the life of the Mexican divinity Quetzalcoatl closely resembles that of the Savior; so closely, indeed, that we can come to no other conclusion than that Quetzalcoatl and Christ are the same being." But that isn't how I contracted Dengue fever.

I met plenty of Mormons and plenty of Mayan Indians who the Mormons are trying to convert-- there's a Mormon temple next to all the big intercity bus terminals so that missionaries can prey on the illiterate peasants arriving in the cities for the first time. But the mosquito that got me came from a broken fountain in the beautiful house we rented in downtown Mérida.
When Romney’s father was five years old, the Mexican Revolution broke out and his parents moved back to the United States to avoid the violence. Mitt Romney was eventually born in Michigan. But the other branch of the family-- leading down to Romney's cousins Leighton, Mike and Meredith-- stayed behind in Mexico, their numbers growing. The Romneys chose to remain in Mexico because they established good lives for themselves and their families there.  Most of them are now dual-citizens. 

“We certainly have a love for both countries,” adds Leighton. “I can sing both national anthems and tear up at both of them.  I think that having two countries that you love and two countries that you can serve or be a beneficiary of their service is a great thing.”

The Romneys living in Mexico are well aware of their wealthy and famous relative’s popularity in the Republican primary race. They support their cousin's candidacy and they hope that Mitt will be more open about the issue of his religion and Mexican heritage during the campaign.  It’s a family history they’re proud of, despite the fact that Mitt Romney has never come to visit.

Dengue fever is becoming quite the problem for tourists in tropical countries lately. Popular tourist destinations like Cambodia, Polynesia, Bali and India have had problems recently.
The mosquito menace which has even led to a few deaths has spread its net of fear amongst the monks and tourist visiting Bodhgaya, the important Buddhist pilgrim destination in the state of Bihar.

Bodhgaya is famous for the Mahabodhi Temple and the Bodhi tree in its courtyard under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. The Mahabodhi Temple is a World Heritage Site and attracts a large number of Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world.

However the past three months has seen the mosquito menace increase from bad to worse and has resulted in the spread of encephalitis, dengue fever and malaria, which has resulted in quite a number of deaths that have occurred over this period.

As such most devotees, monks and even tourist who come to visit Bodhgaya are virtually caged inside portable mosquito nets even during the day, even blocking their free movement. This has caused a real panic among the visitors who are in constant fear of being bitten by mosquitoes.

"Mosquitoes killed even Alexander the Great, and hence we too are quite frightened," said Madelina Illibery, a tourist from Italy. "I was told encephalitis and malaria together [caused by mosquito bites have claimed many lives in the Gaya district alone in the past few weeks…and hence I too have brought a foldable mosquito net for I can't afford to get exposed to those deadly mosquitoes," she added.

Many of the foreign countries have advised on the need of a mosquito net in their travel advisories. This is so because of the current tourist season which attracts a lot of visitors and also to enjoy a hassle free journey in good health.

My case seems pretty mind... at least so far. Not so for this Australian tourist, Trevor Proudlove, who picked it up in Bali.
He said he knew something was wrong when, after returning home from a 10-day holiday in October, he broke out in a bad rash and was so unwell he was unable to drive.

But Mr Proudlove said it was not until he developed pain in his joints and muscles about a month later that he was diagnosed with the disease, which doctors told him he was genetically susceptible to.

He said he would not travel to Bali again because of the distress it had caused him and his family, despite their efforts to stay safe.

"I couldn't even lift my arm to comb my hair and trying to get on and off chairs caused excruciating pain," he said. "It was like somebody was tearing my muscles out of my legs every time I would get up.

"My feet swelled up to twice the size they normally are, my hands swelled up, too. I couldn't bend my wrists because my joints were so sore. It was horrific."

It's far worse than dealing with proselytizing Mormons. And, yes, you can get it here in the U.S. as well, especially in Florida and Texas.
"We know now that Key West is a high-risk area for dengue and we could have ongoing dengue outbreaks again," said the report's lead author, Carina Blackmore, from the Florida Department of Health. However, if people use air conditioners and screens and stay inside during hot, muggy days there is little chance dengue will become endemic, she said.

Dengue remains a leading cause of illness and death in tropical areas but was largely thought to be absent from the United States since the 1950s.

However, in 2009, 27 people living in Key West came down with illness via locally acquired infections, and then 66 more residents contracted the illness in 2010, the researchers report. The outbreak seems to have eased since then, with no cases reported in 2011.

...Because Key West has a large population of the type of mosquitoes that transmit dengue, called the "house mosquito," Blackmore's team decided to investigate the size of the outbreak there. They identified a number of cases and found that people who got dengue were less likely to use air conditioning, and they often had birdbaths or other types of containers where the mosquitoes could breed.

Blackmore noted that dengue is not transmitted person to person, but from humans to mosquitoes and then back to humans again. However, trying to eradicate house mosquitoes has never been successful, she said, because of where they tend to propagate. "House mosquitoes are lazy mosquitoes-- they breed in [even] very small containers," she said.

UPDATE: How Old Is That Mosquito?

Interesting story on Dengue Fever mosquito research on NPR.
There's a nasty disease called dengue that is just beginning to show up in the United States. It's caused by a virus, and it's transmitted from person to person by a mosquito. A mild case of dengue is no worse than flu. A serious case can mean death.

Michael Riehle at the University of Arizona is trying to solve a curious puzzle about dengue: why there have been dozens of cases in nearby Texas and none, or virtually none, in Arizona. Riehle thinks the answer has to do with Arizona's geography.

"It's right on the edge of the range where these dengue mosquitoes are found," he says. "It's a fairly harsh environment, and we think that they might not be surviving long enough to efficiently transfer the disease to other people."

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Eating Healthy In Mérida, Yucatán

Roland had some kind of pork thing

I rented a house in Mérida to kick back and use as a base to explore the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula of southeastern Mexico, the old Mayan Empire-- and to follow up on some leads about Mitt Romney's being a longtime worshipper of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec and Mayan feathered serpent god that the Mormons believe is the resurrected Jesus Christ. But in between... you gotta eat.

Today when we got back from tracking down an old family of Mormon polygamists near Uxmal-- with Romney connections from when the two families first fled America to live in Mexico in the 1800s so they could keep the polygamy hustle (like they still do in Arizona)-- we ate at a Greek/Italian restaurant in the neighborhood, Rescoldos. Their garden dining immediately transported us to Europe and the food was like nothing we've been eating in Mexico. Michael, who lives in NY and spent last summer in Italy, says his ravioli (stuffed with brie and garlic) was the best ravioli he'd ever tasted anywhere. I had scruptuous vegetarian moussaka that was better than any vegetarian Moussaka I ever found in Greece. Everything was delicious and fresh and very inexpensive. What a place!

Finding good vegetarian food isn't easy in Mérida and I had given up when we found Rescoldos. People here eat pork, lots of it. A the food tends to mostly be fried. Healthy eating doesn't seem to be much of a preoccupation. There's a long-time "vegetarian" restaurant that all the guide books hype, Amaro, just down from the Zocolo in the heart of touristville. It's not bad and there are a few vegetarian dishes (in the broadest sense of the word) but... it's not what I was looking for. Way across town is a franchise place called 100% Natural (near Sam's Club). They have these in Cancun and other Mexican resort towns. It reeks plastic and it's not worth the long bus ride. And we met this guy Pedro who has big dreams and a small new vegetarian placed called 2012 (on Calle 62 right near all the tourist action). It wasn't bad-- but not as good as Pedro's dreams. It was the closest thing to vegetarian though.

Ironically, the organic food you can only buy at a market called Superama here but that we eat in California, mostly comes from Mexico-- but from barren northwest Mexico, Baja California. The NY Times got into it this weekend.
Clamshell containers on supermarket shelves in the United States may depict verdant fields, tangles of vines and ruby red tomatoes. But at this time of year, the tomatoes, peppers and basil certified as organic by the Agriculture Department often hail from the Mexican desert, and are nurtured with intensive irrigation.

Growers here on the Baja Peninsula, the epicenter of Mexico’s thriving new organic export sector, describe their toil amid the cactuses as “planting the beach.”

Del Cabo Cooperative, a supplier here for Trader Joe’s and Fairway, is sending more than seven and a half tons of tomatoes and basil every day to the United States by truck and plane to sate the American demand for organic produce year-round.

But even as more Americans buy foods with the organic label, the products are increasingly removed from the traditional organic ideal: produce that is not only free of chemicals and pesticides but also grown locally on small farms in a way that protects the environment.

The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops. And the organic tomatoes end up in an energy-intensive global distribution chain that takes them as far as New York and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, producing significant emissions that contribute to global warming.

From now until spring, farms from Mexico to Chile to Argentina that grow organic food for the United States market are enjoying their busiest season.

“People are now buying from a global commodity market, and they have to be skeptical even when the label says ‘organic’-- that doesn’t tell people all they need to know,” said Frederick L. Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. He said some large farms that have qualified as organic employed environmentally damaging practices, like planting only one crop, which is bad for soil health, or overtaxing local freshwater supplies.

Many growers and even environmental groups in Mexico defend the export-driven organic farming, even as they acknowledge that more than a third of the aquifers in southern Baja are categorized as overexploited by the Mexican water authority. With sophisticated irrigation systems and shade houses, they say, farmers are becoming more skilled at conserving water. They are focusing new farms in “microclimates” near underexploited aquifers, such as in the shadow of a mountain, said Fernando Frías, a water specialist with the environmental group Pronatura Noroeste.

They also point out that the organic business has transformed what was once a poor area of subsistence farms and where even the low-paying jobs in the tourist hotels and restaurants in nearby Cabo San Lucas have become scarcer during the recession.

To carry the Agriculture Department’s organic label on their produce, farms in the United States and abroad must comply with a long list of standards that prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers, hormones and pesticides, for example. But the checklist makes few specific demands for what would broadly be called environmental sustainability, even though the 1990 law that created the standards was intended to promote ecological balance and biodiversity as well as soil and water health.

...While the original organic ideal was to eat only local, seasonal produce, shoppers who buy their organics at supermarkets, from Whole Foods to Walmart, expect to find tomatoes in December and are very sensitive to price. Both factors stoke the demand for imports. Few areas in the United States can farm organic produce in the winter without resorting to energy-guzzling hothouses. In addition, American labor costs are high. Day laborers who come to pick tomatoes in this part of Baja make about $10 a day, nearly twice the local minimum wage. Tomato pickers in Florida may earn $80 a day in high season.

What a great big interconnected world. I wonder if President Romney would set up a shrine to Quetzalcoatl in the White House. I hope we never find out. Here's a photo of me at Chichen Itza, a sacred site where the feathered Mayan serpent god was worshipped. And below that is a Mormon picture at Chichen Itza that represents Quetzalcoatal as the resurrected Jesus. Bishop Willard Romney, the same guy who's running for president under the assumed name "Mitt" Romney, teaches this version of... whatever it is.