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Africa Braces for Swine Flu

by VR Sreeraman on  May 7, 2009 at 6:16 PM Tropical Disease News   - G J E 4
Africa has so far been spared by the swine flu epidemic but veterinary and health officials are bracing for the deadly virus, fearing the continent could end up the worst hit.
 Africa Braces for Swine Flu
Africa Braces for Swine Flu
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According to the World Health Organisation, A(H1N1) influenza has caused 1,500 infections on four continents. Mexico, where the virus was first detected, has reported 42 deaths.

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Officials in Africa admit that preparedness levels vary from one country to another and that the virus may already be on the continent undetected.

"We can't say for sure that no country in Africa has had infections, because of the lack of preparedness and early detection," said Ahmed el-Sawalhy, head of the African Union's Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources (IBAR).

"For example, yesterday I was at the airport in Nairobi: nothing," he told AFP. "But when you go to Cairo airport, it's completely different, everyone was checked, there are forms for everyone coming from affected countries."

"The problem is movement of persons, it is not an animal problem for the time being," he said.

When asked if he believed it was a matter of time for swine flu cases to be confirmed in Africa, Sawalhy replied: "It is my expectation... and it will be a big challenge for all of us."

Speaking in Addis Ababa earlier this week, the AU's social affairs commissioner Bience Gawanas had the same assessment.

"This virus knows no border, no doubt that we might end up with some cases in Africa even if so far the continent has been spared," she said.

Gawanas said that African health ministers gathering for two days in Addis Ababa Thursday and Friday would coordinate their action and ask for as many anti-viral drugs as possible.

As is the case with many global disasters, the planet's poorest continent risks feeling the impact more than others.

"From past experience, it is known that such pandemic may cause mild disease in affluent countries but more severe disease, with higher mortality in developing countries where levels and other epidemiological factors are lower," said an advisory issued Tuesday by IBAR to the AU's 53 member states.

Some health officials paint a bleak picture of their countries should swine flu hit the continent, threatening populations already grappling with AIDS and malaria and further burdening unprepared health services.

"Should we have any challenges here on this issue of swine flu, we would really be left to the mercy of God," said Doctor Francis Epetait, Uganda's shadow health minister.

"Our health centre has very poor coordination and the morale of our health workers is very low," he told AFP.

Sawalhy justified Egypt's controversial decision to cull 250,000 pigs despite no cases of H1N1 having been reported by arguing that the chance of swine flu overlapping with the ongoing avian flu epidemic in one of the continent's main gateways, was one Africa could not afford to take.

"If Egypt has H1N1 in addition to avian flu, it will be a disaster, not only for Egypt as a country, but for all countries," he said.

But IBAR's Samuel Muriuki said awareness of the right steps to take in the event of an outbreak was heightened since the avian flu epidemic hit the continent in 2006, triggering a coordinated response.

"Thanks to the sensitisation that was done on avian flu, people are more aware of this (swine) flu and its dangers," he said.

Suspect cases were investigated in Kenya, South Africa and Benin in recent days but all tests were negative for H1N1.

Source: AFP
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