Swine flu: the test is yet to come

With 62 cases confirmed across the region so far, a flurry of official and non-governmental activity to try to stem the outbreak starts.

Dr Khairya Moosa speaking during a press conference at the Health Ministry offices in Manama yesterday.
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MANAMA // Swine flu, which since April has gripped the world but had seemed to avoid the Gulf, has arrived with a bang, with 62 cases confirmed so far across the region sparking a flurry of official and non-governmental activity to try to stem the outbreak From governments earmarking funds to combat the disease and prepare for an expected sharp increase in cases over the summer, to the illegal sale of under-the-counter medication by those looking to profit from the panic, fear of the pandemic has quickly become part of daily life throughout the Gulf.

Out of the 62 cases confirmed so far, Kuwait has reported 22 - 18 of whom were US soldiers - Saudi Arabia has 17, Bahrain 15, Qatar three and two in the UAE. Oman's health ministry yesterday reported its first cases of swine flu after three were diagnosed with the disease. While figures from the Gulf pale in comparison with the 36,600 confirmed cases and 167 deaths in 80 countries worldwide, regional officials say it is important to remain vigilant here.

"These upcoming few months could be the most critical and dangerous for us and we need to focus most of our efforts on it," Dr Khairya Moosa, the public health director at Bahrain's ministry of health, said in an interview. "We have students returning from studies abroad, we also have a lot of people travelling for the summer holidays in July and August - many of whom will travel to infected countries - and in September schools will reopen".

Dr Moosa's concerns regarding returning students are not without basis as eight out of the 14 cases currently being treated in Bahrain - the other individual who contracted the disease had made a full recovery - are of students who returned this week from the United States. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have reported cases of swine flu among returning students from abroad and the three cases reported in Oman yesterday were all students returning from the United States.

"What we recommend to the public is that if there is no need to travel to the affected country those travel plans should be postponed at this stage, but if they have to travel then they should take precautionary measures by sticking to personal hygiene requirements, staying away from crowded places, and seeking medical care as soon as they display symptoms of illness," Dr Moosa said. She said long-term preparations to deal with swine flu are being made at a national level after the World Health Organisation issued a report saying it expected the pandemic to last between one and a half to two years.

Last week, the WHO raised the worldwide pandemic alert to Phase 6 - its highest level - but said it considered the overall severity of the influenza pandemic to be moderate, based on the fact that most people recover without the need to be treated in hospital or receive medical care and that national rates of swine flu infection appear similar to levels seen during local, seasonal influenza periods.

The decision reflects the increasing speed with which the disease is spreading rather than its severity. Still, as the number of infections and deaths recorded a sharp increase in recent weeks, some accused the WHO and a number of local governments of not taking enough steps to prevent the spread of the disease after it was first discovered in Mexico. Of particular concern to Gulf countries is the potential for the disease to spread at the Haj in Mecca in November.

According to Dr Moosa, Bahrain and the other Gulf countries are in talks with Saudi health officials to draw up a plan to prevent and deal with the spread of swine flu during the pilgrimage, which will be observed between Nov 25 and 28. She said: "The details of the Gulf states unified plan to combat swine flu is being worked out now among Gulf health experts via the Gulf Co-operation Council [GCC] ? and we - the Gulf states, including Bahrain - will be following the guidelines that will be set by the Saudi health authorities."

Dr Moosa added that GCC health officials still have not received details of the required vaccinations to be given or steps to be taken as part of the plan. Sources said the plan should be available in its final version by July, after Saudi Arabia hosts a workshop on swine flu this month for experts from the WHO, the US Centers for Disease Control and others to obtain their recommendations. Fears of the spread of swine flu have pushed Gulf governments in recent weeks to allocate millions of dollars in funds to their health services to provide for vaccinations and upgrade their airport health facilities to detect and deal with the outbreak.

Some, however, have moved to cash in on the fears of the public. Reports of under-the-counter sales of swine flu medication at inflated prices forced Bahrain's health officials to issue a warning to pharmacies and the public not to purchase medication without a doctor's consultation. "Enough medication to deal with the possible outbreak of swine flu had been purchased and provided to public and private medical care providers," Dr Moosa said.

"So there is no need for the public to go out and buy these antibiotic medications because they run the risk of having these medications be ineffective at a later stage if they ever contract the virus, as they develop an immunity to it." The WHO has advised health services across the globe to keep a stock of medication adequate for 30 per cent of their adult population and 25 per cent of their young in case of emergency y.

According to the latest figures released by the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the sharpest rise of reported swine flu infections in the EU occurred in the past two weeks while the highest concentration of reported cases remains in North America, encompassing the US, Canada, and Mexico. In the Middle East, Israel has the highest concentration of swine flu cases, having recorded 131 so far, 14 of which were reported in the past two days, followed by Egypt, which has so far reported 26 cases.

Jordan and Yemen also reported their first cases of swine flu in recent days. mmahdi@thenational.ae