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Mexico’s low coronavirus cases draws skepticism — should travellers worry?

A background on the coronavirus and its symptoms
WATCH: A background on the coronavirus and its symptoms

Months into a global virus outbreak-turned-pandemic, Mexico’s total count of confirmed cases of the new coronavirus to date sits at a meagre 12. But one doctor isn’t so sure that’s accurate.

Francisco Moreno Sánchez, the head of internal medicine at ABC Hospital in Mexico City, told local media Wednesday that he’s worried about the lack of diagnostic testing in the country and fears there are “many more cases” circulating “undetected.”

He said if true, the spread of the disease will have a “brutal” impact on Mexico.

READ MORE: What does it take to recover from coronavirus? It depends, experts say

“We need to copy what some other countries are doing in early detection of the disease,” Moreno said in an interview with El Heraldo Radio, adding that he believes the country is “waiting for the problem to start before taking measures.”

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“My fear is that, when it grows, we’re going to be far from being able to contain it.”

Moreno also expressed concern about how the nation’s health-care system would fare under a widespread outbreak. He said as of now, there are only three medical centres in Mexico certified to test for COVID-19. But for someone to get tested, they must have recently travelled to a country deemed “high-risk” or have known contact with an infected person.

As of March 11, Mexico’s Health Ministry had conducted a total of 324 tests.

Moreno believes this strategy is limiting accurate case identification since the virus has now spread to more than 100 countries.

Health official tells Congress that COVID-19 testing “failing” in U.S.
Health official tells Congress that COVID-19 testing “failing” in U.S.

Mexico’s president has urged the population to remain calm, saying the country has the “capacity to handle the situation.” He’s gone as far as downplaying the concerns.

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Part of Moreno’s worry about the virus stems from Mexico’s lack of measures at its airports. The country has not implemented many border screening measures at airports or other ports of entry for travellers to Mexico. The government said it has no plans to restrict international travel or close borders despite a measure announced by the United States.

Detection methods at Mexico’s capital city airport were only intensified after the eighth confirmed case. The country postponed its first major event — an international tourism conference — over virus fears on Thursday.

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READ MORE: What are coronavirus symptoms? In mild cases, just like the common cold

The global outbreak comes during one of the busiest travel times of the year for Canadians and Americans.

Tourism is vital to Mexico’s economy — an estimated 44 million international tourists visited Mexico in 2019. It’s also a top destination spot for spring breakers across North America.

Any second-guessing Canadians are having about visiting Mexico are not unwarranted, according to Dr. Jeff Kwong, a scientist with ICES and Public Health Ontario.

“Going to resorts might not be the best idea right now,” he told Global News.

“For those who are elderly and/or have chronic medical conditions, getting sick while in Mexico could be disastrous.”

Older people — especially those with a history of chronic illness — are the most at risk of contracting the virus. A recent study by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggests a person’s chances of dying from COVID-19 only increase with age. So far, most of those who have died had underlying health conditions.

U.S. travel measures raise questions for Canadians
U.S. travel measures raise questions for Canadians

Kwong believes its “very likely” Mexico has more undetected cases.

“Ontario has a population of 14 million and we have identified more than 40 cases based on having performed a few thousand tests,” said Kwong.

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“Mexico has a population of 129 million people. So having done only 324 or so tests and identified 12 cases strongly suggests they have not tested enough people. It wouldn’t surprise me if they actually have 400 to 600 cases, which is 10 times the number we have in Ontario right now, or even more.”

READ MORE: Going on vacation amid the coronavirus outbreak? Here’s what to know

But is cancelling spring break plans the right move?

At this point in the outbreak, it doesn’t matter where you’re travelling, said Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto — considering the risks is crucial.

“If I were travelling anywhere internationally, I wouldn’t interpret a small number of officially reported COVID-19 cases as an indication that there is a low risk at the destination,” she said.

“Travellers everywhere should practise the same precautions they are at home and not assume that a lack of reported cases means no transmission.”

Confused about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials say the risk is very low for Canadians, but they caution against travel to affected areas (a list can be found here). If you do travel to these places, they recommend you self-monitor to see whether you develop symptoms and if you do, to contact public health authorities.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing – very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

— with files from Reuters

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