‘Serious mistake’ to dismiss swine flu, warn experts

Infectious disease experts on Tuesday warned health professionals that it would be a “serious mistake” to dismiss swine flu because of the relatively low impact the virus had last year.

Professor John Oxford, virologist and chair of the Global Hygiene Council, said the H1N1 virus has “a sting its tail”.

“It will not go away. The question is, what will it do next?” he said.

Oxford was speaking at the fifth annual meeting of the Global Hygiene Council, being held in Johannesburg this week. The Global Hygiene Council was formed in 2006 to monitor infection threats and is made up of experts in hygiene-related fields such as virology, infectious disease and public health.

The British specialist, who has authored well-known virology texts, predicted another outbreak of swine flu this year. “I think this virus will come back this year in your country as it will in mine, and it will go for the young people first,” he said.

He said there is a “high likelihood” that H1N1 will dominate over this coming flu season, and warned that young people, the type of people most likely to attend the coming Soccer World Cup, would be most at risk.

Professor Barry Schoub, executive director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said there is a misconception in South Africa that tourists will bring infectious diseases like swine flu with them. “We’ll be in the throes of our flu season; we’ll be infecting them rather than them infecting us,” he said.

The NICD has recommended that those coming into the country over that period consult with their doctors to decide whether they need the flu vaccine. The British government has also recommended that United Kingdom citizens travelling to South Africa for the World Cup get vaccinated against the flu.

Case for good hygiene
Schoub rejected allegations that there is a shortage of flu vaccine in the country, saying there is currently more flu vaccine in the country than ever before. Earlier this year, the Health Department said it had acquired more than four million doses of the H1N1 vaccine in preparation for a national immunisation campaign.

Instead, Schoub said, there is a “maldistribution of the vaccine”, with most of the vaccines saved for high-risk groups targeted by a massive immunisation campaign. The campaign, which runs until the end of May, targets frontline healthcare workers, children under the age of 15 who have HIV/Aids, pregnant women and patients attending specialist heart and lung clinics.

“There has been a shortage in the private sector but it will eventually be addressed,” he said, adding that there is “ample vaccine” for the targeted groups and that excess doses will be released to the private sector when the campaign ends.

But the experts warned that vaccination should not be seen as the only line of defence against swine flu. Oxford pointed out that even with the vaccine, or with taking Tamiflu to alleviate symptoms, people could still contract and pass on the virus. “You still need to have good hygiene practice because you have to take responsibility for yourself,” he said.

Oxford recommended “a bit of social distance and a lot of hygiene”. People who have the flu should avoid mass gatherings — including the World Cup — and avoid contact with people who have flu-like symptoms. In addition, they should avoid touching the nose, mouth or eyes, cover the nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and dispose of the tissue afterwards. Everyone should wash their hands or sanitise with an alcohol-based hand rub frequently.

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Faranaaz Parker
Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live.

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