Expert Slams Pandemic Response

Asian health officials gear up for an expected surge in H1N1 cases.
2009-06-15
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Kindergarten students sit at their school in a residential estate in Hong Kong, June 11, 2009.
AFP

HONG KONGA leading expert in emerging infectious diseases has lashed out at the World Health Organization (WHO) for reacting too slowly in the face of swine flu, which it has now declared a pandemic.

Announcing the raising of the pandemic alert from phase 5 to phase 6 on Friday, WHO director-general Margaret Chan said further spread of the virus is now considered "inevitable" by leading international health experts and virologists.

Guan Yi, virologist at the University of Hong Kong and expert on emerging infectious diseases, accused the Geneva-based world health body of caving in to political pressure from major world powers.

"The level of pandemic alert was set at five by world experts and should have gone up to level six a month and a half ago," said Guan, who is currently preparing an analysis of the H1N1 swine flu virus, which has infected more than 26,000 people in 73 countries across the world.

"Why didn't the WHO raise the pandemic alert level? Because it was getting a lot of interference from a lot of countries," said Guan, who is working with scientists at Oxford University to track the evolution of the swine flu virus.

Head start

"Would the United States, Japan, and even mainland China close their borders? Of course they won't," said Guan.

"The WHO's loss of international authority has meant this outbreak has spread further and more rapidly than it might have."

Chan said that while more advanced technology had given the world "a head start" in monitoring the pandemic in its earliest stages, scientists were still working amid considerable uncertainty.

"The virus writes the rules, and this one, like all influenza viruses, can change the rules without rhyme or reason at any time," Chan said in a statement.

She noted that swine flu typically strikes younger people, making it different from seasonal flu, which typically hits the elderly.

"It is important to note that around one-third to half of the severe and fatal infections are occurring in previously healthy young and middle-aged people," Chan said, warning that poorer countries could carry a far higher proportion of deaths than developed countries with established health care systems.

"Countries should prepare to see cases, or the further spread of cases, in the near future," Chan warned. "Countries where outbreaks appear to have peaked should prepare for a second wave of infection."

Gearing up

She said populations around the world would be susceptible to infection with swine flu, but stopped short of recommending travel restrictions or border closures.

In the wake of Chan's statement, Asian countries are gearing up for a potential explosion of cases of swine flu, which has killed 140 people so far, most of them in Mexico and the United States.

Thailand, New Zealand, the Philippines, and China all reported two-digit increases in confirmed cases of the flu on Sunday.

Authorities in Vietnam said they are watching all those who cross the border by air, land, or sea.

"Vietnam has implemented necessary measures since April 30, 2009," Tran Tinh Hien, vice director of Ho Chi Minh city’s tropical diseases hospital said.

"Until now, there have been 21 cases, but only three of those were local people who got the virus from their relatives coming from other countries. All other cases were overseas Vietnamese, or students from foreign countries," he said.

"Ho Chi Minh City has experience because we dealt with outbreaks of bird flu in 2004, 2005, and 2006," Tran Tinh Hien said. "Our [hospitals] have experience in dealing with this situation."

"Our staff has been trained and has practiced methods to treat patients and learned how to avoid spreading the virus," he added.

More cases reported

Beijing says China has now found more than 100 cases of swine flu. The highest number of cases has emerged so far in the capital, with 33 confirmed infections.

An employee who answered the phone at the Beijing Health Bureau more cases had emerged in recent days. "The confirmed patients are now being treated in Ditan Hospital," the employee said.

In the southern province of Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong, the director of the emergency office of the provincial center for disease control, surnamed Song, said the authorities would adjust their plans accordingly following the WHO announcement.

"Preventative and control measures will surely be adjusted and increased accordingly, but as of now we haven’t received any official notification," Song said.

Authorities on the Chinese mainland confirmed 20 new H1N1 flu cases on Sunday, bringing the total number of infections to 185 with no fatalities reported yet.

New cases were reported in Beijing, the central provinces of Hubei and Hunan, the coastal provinces of Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong, the eastern province of Shandong, and Shanghai.

Health authorities in Hong Kong, where the outbreak of the SARS virus in 2003 killed 300 people in the city and 800 worldwide, reported the territory's first human case of swine flu.

Centre for Health Protection controller Thomas Tsang said the patient, a 55-year-old man, had caught the A(H1N1) virus at an event that another known swine flu patient had attended, becoming the first person known to have acquired the disease in Hong Kong itself.

Tsang told reporters: "He had no travel history during the incubation period. We find he had been at the same cocktail party function as the confirmed case on June 5."

Hong Kong's previous 49 confirmed swine flu cases were all found to have contracted the virus while overseas.

And an Australian lacrosse team has been quarantined in South Korea after a 19-year-old player tested positive for the virus after arriving at Incheon International Airport near Seoul.

Original reporting in Cantonese by Fung Yat-yiu, in Mandarin by Qiao Long, and in Vietnamese by Thao Dao. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Vietnamese service director: Diem Nguyen. Additional translation by Jia Yuan and Hanh Seide. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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