Wednesday, April 29, 2009

WHO declares pandemic is imminent

The World Health Organisation has increased its swine flu threat level to Phase 5, which declares that a pandemic is imminent [WHO].

The WHO amounts to a call for action for governments around the world to actively prepare plans. In Britain the government laid out its plan during a parliamentary session and at an afternoon press conference.

Its health campaign launched on Thursday under the slogan of “Catch it, Bin it, Kill it”. The initiative came as Britain announced the number of people confirmed with the virus rose to five.

New cases

Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an announcement in the British parliament during Prime Minister’s Questions. One of those tested positive was identified as a 12 year old girl who had travelled on the same plane as the two currently being treated in Scotland. Two other adults were also identified as having contracted the virus, one a 22 year old man from south London and the other a 44 year old woman from Birmingham.

The girl from Torbay in Devon is being treated at home and many of her fellow pupils have been administered antiviral drugs. Paignton Community and Sports College, the school at the centre of the latest scare, has been shut for seven days and 230 students are being treated with Tamiflu. Fifty of them are being monitored closely after having come into close contact with the girl.

Although those infected show a direct connection with Mexico, there is no immediate sign of a human to human transmission in the UK, the government said today. But the government has said it is keeping a close eye on developments.

In a more positive note, 7 people who had been closely monitored after showing flu-like symptoms after coming into contact with the Scottish couple, the first in Britain to contract the virus, were today declared infection free.

Health plan

But the British government says it is not sitting by idly. In parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said more anti-viral drugs, namely Tamilfu and Relenza, were being ordered to treat up to 80% of the UK population. In addition the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Johnson said the government had ordered 60 million surgical and respiratory face masks for health workers. These specialist masks were beneficial if used properly, changed frequently and disposed off correctly, Johnson said. However, he dismissed the usefulness of masks by the general public. “There is no convincing scientific evidence to show the effectiveness of wearing a mask,” Alan Johnson said on Wednesday. Chief Medical Officer Professor Liam Donaldson also said that masks were of little use. “Scientific advice is that they are of very little value because they get moist and the virus is so small it goes through the pores,” Donaldson said, whilst adding, “it adds to a false sense of security.”

Instead, government health advice to those showing symptoms is to use a tissue and to dispose of it before then washing hands, preferably with anti-bacterial soap.
Alan Johnson told reporters that the best line in defence was to keep people informed about issues such as hygiene.

On Thursday a special telephone helpline was opened to the public [0800 513 513] and adverts were launched on TV, radio and in print media. Alan Johnson said that leaflets giving advice would also be distributed to every home in Britain on Tuesday next week.

Planning for a pandemic

Even before the WHO raised the threat level, Britain’s Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson said, “We are planning for all eventualities and we need to understand more about this virus.”

There was a great deal more to learn, he said, both in the way it was transmitted and how long the virus took to take hold. “We don’t know the incubation period yet,” Donaldson added.

Speaking in parliament on Wednesday evening, Britain’s Secretary of State for Health reiterated the country was “well placed to deal with this infection”. In 1968 when Britain was hit by a similar medical emergency, there had been no national plan, Johnson said, but the government had learnt from history. “We can reduce its impact seen in pandemics of the last century,” Johnson said.

While the government is aiming to reassure the public, there is continued concern that the media is overhyping the issue. There is also concern that online discussion on services like Twitter is also adding to people’s worries [CNN]. During the Sky News paper review Kelvin Mackenzie, ex-editor of the Sun newspaper, said that people should “calm down” adding that more people die from seasonal flu. It is has to be said that seasonal flu in the UK kills up to 2,000 people every year and 36,000 die in the US. So far, around 150 have died from so called swine flu.

There issue over its name is raising some debate. The correct name is the H1N1 Influenza A virus, and not ‘swine flu’ as it has been dubbed. It has perhaps angered pig farmers and butchers the most. Russia and China have both banned imports of pork from Mexico, despite there being no link to eating the meat. Egypt has gone further with orders issued to kill the country’s 300,000 pigs.

[BBC / Sky News / CNN / wikipedia].

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