Monday, April 27, 2009

Concern increases over swine flu

Britain is the second country in Europe to announce an outbreak of swine flu. Two people who had returned to Britain from Mexico were admitted to Monklands Hospital in Airshire, Scotland during the weekend after they showed signs of flu. On Monday at around 18:30 the Scottish Deputy First Minister and Health announced that the two people had been tested positive for the H1N1 virus. She said that 7 of the 22 people who had come into contact with the patients had also developed symptoms. But she insisted Britain was doing everything it could. “The government is responding very quickly,” Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon told the media today.

Slow information flow

But information has been slow in coming from official sources. While the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Health Protection Agency websites had some information, much of it was brief. The National Health Service website gave no advice or information and not one press conference was organised throughout the entire weekend despite increasing concern raised in the media.

The Health Protection Agency [HPA] gave out general advice to travellers returning from affected areas saying they should contact their doctor if they showed signs of influenza. In addition they give general advice about hygiene.

The HPA said that it was important to cover the nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, and use a tissue wherever possible. Maintaining good basic hygiene such as washing hands frequently with soap and water to reduce the spread of the virus is also encouraged.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office [FCO] website said that visitors to Mexico should be “aware of the outbreak of influenza”. The FCO advised travellers to “avoid large crowds, shaking hands, kissing people as a greeting, or using the subway” and said people should maintain “a distance of at least six feet from other persons”.

Other agencies had not updated information on their websites nor could many be contacted through their press office. The BAA media centre was shut and there was no response from other agency departments on Sunday.

On Sunday passengers at Gatwick airport reported that they had been asked to fill in a questionnaire upon their arrival from Mexico. But today many said they had not been stopped nor advised.

Even some doctors have said they have received little or no advice.

Media overkill

Front pages of many of Monday’s newspapers in Britain carried sensationalist headlines, and it was not just confined to the tabloids. Suggestions that up to a million could die and that up to nine million could contract the virus.

“Is Swine Flu already here?” the Mail asked, while the Daily Express shouted the headline, “Killer Pig Flu Fear in Britain”. Howard Kurtz one media analyst at the Washington Post says the media was over-egging the story. “The sheer volume of coverage creates the impression that the story is bigger than it really is,” he said on CNN’s Backstory.

“There is no great competing news story at present” he said, thus leaving the door wide open for such sensationalist reporting. The 24 hour news cycle was particularly to blame, Kurtz said, since the story was often repeated over and over again.
“In this business we have the ability to spread fear whether we mean it or not,” he said.

Conflicting advice

While there has been general advice pertaining to general hygiene and the use of a handkerchief of tissue, there is conflicting advice on whether masks are effective. Britain’s health minister questioned the effectiveness of the use of masks while a CNN reporter stationed in Mexico said that part of his kit included N95 masks which he said “seem to be the best to stop the virus entering our lungs”.

There has been little or no information about the use or distribution of Tamiflu and other anti viral drugs in the UK, though the government says it has enough treatment for half the population of Britain according to Health Secretary Alan Johnson.

Sir Liam Donaldson, Britain’s chief medical officer, said today that it could not be ruled out that a pandemic could hit the country and the World Health Organisation raised its level of threat to phase 4, though it stops short of referring to the spread as being a global pandemic.

Threat uncertain

In Mexico where more than 100 have died many streets are empty. A sell out football match was played in an empty stadium. Public buildings have been closed and some fear that the public transport system could be next.

If a pandemic were to occur, scenes like these may be repeated elsewhere

The number of countries so far affected is increasing, but so far no deaths have been reported. The number is changing almost hourly but by late Monday night there were 75 confirmed cases worldwide. There are confirmed cases in the US, Canada, Spain and the UK. Meanwhile there are several suspected cases in France, Israel and New Zealand.

One health and safety expert in New Zealand told tvnewswatch that the risk of a pandemic was worrying.

Speaking on the phone from Auckland, Dave Feickert said, “It sounds like a very serious pandemic and they (the authorities) are going to have to get on to it very quickly. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has acted quickly, too.”

Although Feickert has worked in preventive methods with other types of flu, such as Avian flu, he stressed that the nature of the recent outbreak had still to be determined.

“I was doing some work on how to alter farming methods so that chicken flu could be prevented from passing to pigs and then leaping the species barrier to people,” he said, “However, the epidemiologists and flu scientists are not certain what this new strain is exactly.”

As for New Zealand, he said that the country was very well prepared. “We are very well organised for this kind of thing because New Zealand is a small open country, heavily dependent on its agricultural trade and incoming tourists,” he said.

Nonetheless he was still concerned. “I’m going to be travelling soon and I always think about the risks of contracting something when flying because of the recirculation of air,” Feickert said.

Stocks affected by pandemic threat

The risks posed by air travel have already prompted some authorities to implement new procedures. In Japan and Chile, thermo-graphic cameras have been installed to monitor the body temperature of incoming passengers.

The perceived global threat is already affecting stock markets. Mexican stocks were down 4% and their currency fell 3%. But it was stocks relating to travel and tourism that were particularly hard hit. The situation wasn’t helped by comments from EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou who said, "Personally, I'd try to avoid non-essential travel to the areas which are reported to be in the center (of the crisis)."

Airline stocks Lufthansa and British Airways fell 9.25% and 7.75% respectively and travel agent Thomas Cook dropped 4.42%.

There was some positive news though. Pharmaceutical stocks soared in the wake of the bad news spreading around the globe. Makers of Tamiflu and Relenza both saw their stocks rise. Roche was up 3.5%, Glaxosmithkline rose 6.11% and Astrazeneca lifted 3.01%

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