Possible Swine Flu Pandemic puts the Health Department on high alert

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 19, No. 17            April 30, 2009

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Security at the Corozal Free Zone has been heightened in light of the Swine Flu.

The San Pedro Sun broke the story in January when medical practitioners in Belize began to prepare for a possible pandemic of the Avail Influenza. But instead of mitigating their readiness for a possible influenza, the Belize Health Department say they will use that state of readiness to prepare for the recent outbreak of swine flu that is causing alarm around the globe and has been blamed for over 152 deaths in neighboring Mexico. Following drastic measures taken in surrounding countries, health authorities, medical partners and even the Minister in charge of the Health Department were brought in to adjust the pandemic plan for Belize.

    But what is swine flu? According to Epidemiologist Doctor Paul Edwards, the new virus is thought to be a combination of the Swine Virus that normally occurs in pigs combined with Avian Virus and now with a human virus. Those combinations have produced a new virus and that is a type A virus called H1N1.

    Speaking to the media at Monday’s press conference in Belize City, the Director of Health Services Doctor Michael Pitts stated that, “in terms of Belize we have a robust response plan and this plan is part of what has been going on in terms of our preparedness for Avian Influenza and even though we don’t have Avian Influenza, because of the planning for that, we are better poised in terms of what we can do in Belize.”

    The Ministry of Health (MOE) is recommending that first and foremost, the population gets the right information about the disease and to know with certainty that there are simple things that you can do at home to help safeguard themselves against the disease.

    To avoid contagion, the Health Department recommends the following:

  • Keep away from people with respiratory infection.
  • Wash hands frequently with soap and water.
  • Cover face when sneezing or coughing
  • Do not kiss people or shake hands when you greet them.
  • Do not share food, glasses or cutlery.
  • Ventilate and let the sun into the house, offices and all closed areas.
  • Keep kitchen and bathroom surfaces clean, as well as door handles, banisters, toys, telephones and commonly used objects.

   Of the 152 deaths in Mexico suspected to be attributed to swine flu, only 20 have been confirmed. There have been 64 confirmed cases in the United States of America, none fatal, while Canada has six confirmed cases. There have also been confirmed cases in New Zealand, United Kingdom, Spain, Israel and New Zealand. Countries with suspected cases are Brazil, Guatemala, Peru, Australia, South Korea and Costa Rica which was added to the list on Tuesday morning.

    Because the symptoms of the swine flu are similar to the seasonal flu, it is recommended that in event of sudden high fever, coughs, headaches, muscular pain or pain in the articulations that you visit your doctor or health unit immediately. As to date no cases have been reported in Belize, but in the event the disease is confirmed, in order not to infect others, the Health Department recommends that you visit the doctor for a check-up and treatment. Under no circumstances should people try to medicate themselves.

    According to Private Medical Practitioner, Doctor Gregorio Garcia, while there is no registered cases in Belize, in the event of a possible case those mostly vulnerable will be the older people, young children, people suffering from chronic diseases, drugs users and immunocompromised people who have a lower immune system. While it has raised concerns for residents, the biggest of the concerns is whether or not Belize can deal with the event of an outbreak. First, the only way to confirm a suspected case is through the laboratory which is not done in Belize. Arrangements are being made by the MOE to send tests through the Caribbean Epidemiologist Center for Belize directly to the Center for Disease and Control based in Atlanta, USA for testing.

    Doctor Pitts says that there are several levels of clinical indications to the flu ranging from mild to severe. “Mild level would be those with the sniffles and the fever and the lethargy and so on that we could use some basic things. Where you have problems would be in severe diseases where you may have severe pneumonia with respiratory stresses and so on. But at that level we have support. You know that for the country, the Minister of Health, we have four regional health facilities, we certainly have Karl Heusner with support. So at all of those facilities we have teams who are trained to treat people with severe pneumonias.”

    There are plans to import a supply of the medication “Tamiflu” which can help in the treatment, but it is not available over the counter; in fact it is not available in Belize. It’s a medication that is handled with the strict supervision of the World Health Organization (WHO) and is kept on stockpile as the need arises and they will provide it for containment of the disease. For the Americas, the stockpile is kept in Panama and according to the MOE, they have confirmed that 3000 doses are readily available for Belize should the need arise.

    The Mexican state of Quintana Roo, directly north of Belize, reports no confirmed cases of swine flu. There are 22 cases of influenza reported in the medical facilities in Quintana Roo and according to the media in Chetumal, 15 of them have been confirmed as not being swine flu while the other seven are being tested. Most confirmed cases are from communities around Mexico City. But Belize is taking no chance and has implemented a number of measures to minimize exposure to and transmission of the virus at Belize’s northern-most point of contact with Mexico. Since Saturday authorities at the Corozal Free Zone, the Corozal Border Management Agency, Customs and Immigration Departments have been using surgical mask and gloves. A medical team has been placed at the Corozal Free Zone to scrutinize visitors going in to the area as there is no plan to close the northern point of entry into Belize at this time.

    The WHO has declared the swine flu outbreak in North America a “public health emergency of international concern.” The decision means countries around the world will be asked to step up reporting and surveillance of the disease. The WHO fears the outbreak could spread to other countries and is calling for a world wide coordinated response to contain it.

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