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Wednesday, April 05, 2006 

CAREC: Bird flu can reach Caribbean
2006-04-05 02:46 (updated 2006-04-05 09:00)

Caribbean countries may not be able to prevent the introduction of avian influenza, also known as bird flu, in spite of efforts to prepare for the animal-based disease which has killed humans in Asia and eastern Europe, an official from the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre (CAREC) said yesterday.

Dr Beryl Irons, an epidemiologist and head of the committee advising the Caribbean on bird flu, said the disease will have to become a pandemic before a vaccine can be developed. “What we are certain that you will be able to do is prevent most of the spread of the disease and decrease morbidity and mortality by the way we manage the patients,” Irons said while speaking on “Planning for the Influenza Human Pandemic: Progress in preparedness in Caricom Member States” at a conference on bird flu.

The conference, hosted by Caricom and several other regional and international agencies, took place at the Ambassador hotel, St James. Irons said it can take between six to eight months for a vaccine to be ready. “So you will be one year into the epidemic before the vaccine becomes available,” she explained.

The H5N1 strain of influenza A has infected both animals and humans and health experts are worried about a strain developing which is easily transmitted between humans, causing a pandemic. Approximately 186 people (East Asia/Pacific, Europe) have been infected and 105 have died. Ninety percent of the cases were in people who had close contact with animals.

Irons assured that once the vaccine is available, there were competent managers in Caribbean territories to administer it as quickly as possible. Although countries, including Trinidad and Tobago, have stocked up on the drug Tamiflu, Irons said its impact on preventing H5N1 in the countries where people have died was difficult to determine. Veterinarian Dr Rosa Salas explained that Tamiflu could be used to contain the initial spread of the disease and give more time for preparation of a vaccine.

During her address, Irons said as part of public health intervention countries should ensure there were laws to deal with mass gatherings of people. She said church gatherings and going to the cinema would be affected. Irons said for TT “there will definitely be no Carnival.” Countries must also decide where people with the influenza will be treated to prevent the disease spreading to other patients and health workers.

Irons said readiness for different aspects of the pandemic must be decided by the committee overseeing the implementation of plans. She said priority lists for medical attention and supplies, for example masks, had to be decided. “It becomes very real if you have vaccines in place. Whom do you vaccine first? Your prime minister, politicians, the elderly?” At the mention of politicians some in the gathering started mumbling, “No.” Irons responded by saying countries had to be prepared with their lists.

She said planning for a pandemic must include surveillance of birds and humans, the emergencyactivities needed, prevention of the introduction and spread of the disease.

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