Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Pandemic Begins
Friday 12, 2009
Jano Charbel

News that the A(H1N1) Influenza had developed into a global pandemic was announced at a press conference held on Thursday night at the World Health Organization’s Regional Office in Cairo, in the absence of officials from the Egyptian Ministry of Health. After having consulted with influenza experts, leading virologists and public health officials, the WHO’s director-general determined that the threat of Swine Flu should be raised from pandemic phase 5 to the highest level - phase 6 - and has now been classified as a global influenza pandemic.

Though the A(H1N1) Influenza Pandemic has presently infected around 30,000 people in 74 countries , causing a global panic, it has only resulted in 141 deaths. In other words, currently less than one percent of those infected with Swine Flu have died from it. The WHO’s spokesman Dr. John Jabbour said that “we have a total of 12 confirmed cases in Egypt, all of which have come from abroad, having imported the influenza. All have been treated and recovered. Further infections are expected, naturally, Jabbour added.

Pandemics are contagious diseases, viruses, or influenzas which are spread among humans over large geographic regions, continents, or even across the world. According to the WHO’s classification system for pandemics, the A(H1N1) Influenza has passed through Phases 1-3: where infections are predominantly found in animals with limited infections of humans; Phase 4: characterized by sustained transmission amongst humans; and finally Phases 5-6: Where infections spread over continents, and then globally.

After reaching its apex the pandemic then tapers off to its post-peak level, and then to the post-pandemic level WHO officials were not in a position to answer journalists’ questions as to how long this pandemic would last." Months or maybe a year? "We cannot provide any projections as to how long this pandemic will last? said Dr. Gawwad Mahmoud, the WHO’s Director of Disease Control. He added “we’re still trying to comprehend this virus."

Jabbour and Mahmoud reiterated the stance of the WHO’s director-general, Dr. Margaret Chan, in saying that – airports and international borders should not be closed down in light of this pandemic. Travelers, cargo, commercial goods, and pharmaceuticals (including vaccinations) should not either be prevented from crossing borders – given that they are screened, and inspected; quarantined and treated if necessary. Jabbour added “the closure of borders will not help. It will only create additional economic burdens and crises across the world.

The last time a global pandemic was announced was 41 years ago. The Hong Kong Flu Pandemic lasted from 1968-69, leaving around one million people dead worldwide. Virologists have pointed out that such pandemics may surface every few decades. There have been numerous sorts of pandemics throughout history, some of which have decimated entire populations. The worldwide Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-19 lasted only around six months, yet it left at least 50 million dead in its aftermath.

As was noted by WHO officials – the current strain of Swine Flu is moderately severe in terms of its infections. There are numerous individuals who were infected with the new A(H1N1) Influenza and who have recovered without vaccinations or medical attention. That is not to say that this is the norm, or that medical attention is unnecessary. Children, the elderly, and individuals with weak immune systems are most prone to fall victim. In fact most of the A(H1N1) cases have been reported in individuals under the age of 25.

As for the H5N1 strain of the Avian Influenza, it has infected humans via poultry since 2003. The total rate of fatalities associated with Bird Flu infections worldwide is 60%. In Egypt a total of 76 people have been diagnosed with the H5N1 Influenza infected since 2006, 27 of which have died. In other words 35% of those infected here with Bird Flu have died as a result. Thus the current global fatality rate associated with Swine Flu - of nearly 0.5% pales in comparison to the fatalities associated with Bird Flu. However, the Bird and Swine Flues are susceptible to mutation, where they may both develop into more infectious strains which are increasingly resistant to vaccines. In the words of the WHO director-general “the virus writes the rules and this one, like all influenza viruses, can change the rules, without rhyme or reason, at any time."

The WHO cites that it “remains in close dialogue with influenza vaccine manufacturers, and that “production of vaccines for seasonal influenza will be completed soon; adding that at “full capacity we will be available to ensure the largest possible supply of pandemic vaccines in the months to come. But will the world really be able to brace itself for this global influenza pandemic? Just how prepared is Egypt for the A(H1N1) Influenza coupled with the H5N1 Influenza?

According to an interview conducted earlier in the month with Health Ministry Spokesman, Dr. Abdel Rahman Shahin, “we have 33 border crossings points – including land crossings, airports, and seaports. Each of these points of entry is now equipped with heat-sensing cameras used to screen all people entering the country, we also have quarantine areas in each of these border crossing points – in which cases of suspected infections are kept aside and tested for the virus. He added “we currently have a strategic reserve of 2.5 million Tamiflu vaccinations, for combating not only bird flu but also swine flu. We have ordered another 2.5 million such vaccinations, which are on their way. In addition to this we have 100 million facial masks, plus six months worth of strategic stockpiles in baby milk, insulin, albumin, filters and filtration devices for patients undergoing kidney dialyses, and blood bags – all this in case that trade or travel bans are imposed."

As for the WHO’s advice regarding how to protect yourself and others from the A(H1N1) Influenza they offer eight recommendations. Cover your nose and mouth with a disposable tissue when coughing and sneezing; Properly dispose of used tissues immediately after use; Regularly wash hands with soap and water; If you have flu-like symptoms, seek medical advice immediately; If you have flu-like symptoms keep a distance of at least one meter from other people; If you have flu-like symptoms stay home, away from work, school or crowded places; Avoid hugging, kissing and shaking hands when greeting; Avoid touching eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands

Dr. Jabbour’s advice to Egyptians, and citizens of the world alike, is that: “individuals, just like governments, are responsible for doing their part in keeping the influenza from spreading. We must be wary of our personal hygiene, and of avoiding crowded places so as not to spread the influenza from one person to another."

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