28 April, 2009

World battles to curb swine flu

The swine flu epidemic crossed new borders with the first cases confirmed in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region, as world health officials said they suspect American patients may have transmitted the virus to others in the U.S.

Most people confirmed with the new swine flu were infected in Mexico, where the number of deaths blamed on the virus has surpassed 150.

But confirmation that people had become infected outside Mexico would indicate that the disease was spreading beyond travelers returning from the country, World Health Organization spokesman Gregory Hartl told reporters.

"At this time, containment is not a feasible option," said Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general of the World Health Organization.

WHO raised the alert level to Phase 4, meaning there is sustained human-to-human transmission causing outbreaks in at least one country. WHO's pandemic alert system was revised after bird flu in Asia began to spread in 2004. Monday was the first time it has ever been raised above Phase 3.

Flu deaths are nothing new in the United States or elsewhere. The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 36,000 people died of flu-related causes each year, on average, during the 1990s in the United States.

But the new flu strain is a combination of pig, bird and human viruses that humans may have no natural immunity to.

A decision by WHO to put an alert at Phases 4 or 5 signals that the virus is becoming increasingly adept at spreading among humans. Phase 6 is for a full-blown pandemic, characterized by outbreaks in at least two regions of the world.

Symptoms include a fever of more than 100, coughing, joint aches, severe headache and, in some cases, vomiting and diarrhea. Many victims have been in their 30s and 40s — not the very old or young who typically succumb to the flu.

So far, no deaths from the new virus have been reported outside Mexico.

It could take four to six months before the first batch of vaccines are available, WHO said. Some antiflu drugs do work once someone is sick.

The best way to keep the disease from spreading, the CDC's acting director, Richard Besser, said, is by taking everyday precautions such as frequent handwashing, covering up coughs and sneezes, and staying away from work or school if not feeling well.

Meanwhile, Malaysia Health Ministry director-general Tan Sri Dr Mohd Ismail Merican said Malaysia is free of the epidemic as there are no cases based on observation for signs of 'influenza-like illness'.

He said to maintain the situation, the ministry activated the disease control division yesterday to monitor the situation and to check for signs of the virus at the KL International Airport (KLIA) and all other entry points.

The ministry will meet with relevant agencies tomorrow to discuss steps that can be taken to prevent and control any epidemic. Press statements will be issued from time to time to inform people about developments and steps taken.

Mohd Ismail said WHO's raising of the influenza pandemic warning from Phase 3 to Phase 4 showed a possibility of a pandemic.

"Phase 4 means the virus going from humans to humans and causing an epidemic among communities but WHO has not placed any restrictions in health, travel and trade that needed to be made. The increase in phase does not mean the pandemic could not be stopped but the phase could go down or go up based on the information and situation."

The Ministry advises people not to travel overseas especially to countries affected. Those who fall sick while travelling must get immediate treatment.

Any information on the swine flu can be obtained on 03-88810200 or 03-88810300 or on www.moh.gov.my.

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