/ 28 April 2009

DA: South Africa’s ‘non-response’ to swine flu worrying

The South African government’s ”non-response” to the outbreak of swine flu was worrying, the Democratic Alliance said on Tuesday.

”South Africa is a long physical distance from the outbreak, but it would take only one passenger arriving on a long-haul flight to let loose an outbreak here,” said the party’s health spokesperson and MP Mike Waters.

Many countries not affected had declared a health emergency, but South Africa’s response has been ”muted”, besides some general and wikipedia links on the health department’s website, he said.

Earlier, the Health Department said there were no cases in South Africa, but Waters believed South African authorities should form a committee of representatives from the departments of home affairs, health and transport, to develop a strategy to prevent swine flu from entering the country.

On Monday the World Health Organisation (WHO) said the situation regarding the outbreak of the virus, whose symptoms are similar to seasonal flu, was ”evolving rapidly”, but neither the European Union nor the WHO had advised travel restrictions.

Initially the US, Mexico and Canada reported new cases, but on Tuesday news agencies told of cases as far afield as New Zealand and Israel.

On Tuesday afternoon it was reported that at least 152 people were believed to have died of the virus in Mexico, and that schools there, as well as in some areas of the US, had been closed.

WHO describes swine influenza as a highly contagious acute respiratory disease of pigs, caused by one of several swine influenza A viruses, which sometimes crosses the species barrier to make humans ill.

There is no vaccine, but there are medicines available to treat it.

South African Airways spokesperson Robyn Chalmers said cabin crew had been briefed on the origins and symptoms of swine flu and on how to identify any suspected cases among passengers on international flights.

The protocol of the airline, which does not fly to Mexico, but does fly to cities in north and south America, is for cabin crew to alert the captain, who in turn advises air traffic control at the destination that cleaning and disinfection will be required on arrival.

”Medical ground support will also be alerted to assist on arrival with the ill passenger,” said Chalmers.

The airline was working closely with the International Air Transport Association, which was in turn working with the International Civil Aviation Organisation and WHO to help put in place any measures deemed necessary, explained Chalmers.

Meanwhile, the Health Department said its plans included having outbreak response teams in all provinces and heightened clinical and laboratory surveillance to identify suspected human cases.

It was working closely with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, the Agriculture Department and the WHO.

Plans include drafting a ”National Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Plan” as well as influenza case management guidelines.

KwaZulu-Natal’s Health Department said it was ready to respond to any outbreaks.

”Port health acts as the first line of defence by carrying the necessary screening,” said spokesperson Leon Mbangwa in a statement.

Meanwhile, pork producers moved to assure the public on Tuesday that their products were not affected as the virus was being passed through human contact.

Chief executive officer of the South African Pork Producers Association, Simon Streicher said: ”We have tested our pigs over the last couple of years for swine flu and all our pigs were negative.”

South Africa’s ports authorities and agriculture departments were expected to make statements later.

Meanwhile, in the rest of Africa, Mozambique had placed its ports of entry on high alert, Nigerian authorities said they were ready to cope and Egypt’s lower house of Parliament called for about 250 000 pigs there to be slaughtered, new agencies reported. — Sapa