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Thursday, May 18, 2006 

Bahamas prepares for costly flu pandemic

Bahamas Information Services

Officials at the seminar in Risk Communication Specific to Avian and Pandemic Influenza, pictured from left, Dr Merceline Dahl-Regis, Chief Medical Officer; David Taylor, Regional Adviser, Hospital Administration, PAHO; Dr Yitades Gebre, Adviser, Disease Prevention and Control, PAHO; Elma Garraway, Permanent Secretary; Dr Bernard J Nottage, Minister of Health and National Insurance; Lynda Campbell, PAHO/WHO representative, Bahamas and Turks and Caicos; Obie Wilchcombe (Minister of Tourism); Leslie Miller (Minister of Agriculture); and Dr Jody Lanard, Consultant, PAHO. (BIS photo by Patrick Hanna)

The Ministry of Health and National Insurance is “actively” preparing for “the eventuality of a pandemic Avian influenza,” Chief Medical Officer Dr Merceline Dahl-Regis said.And, Dr Yitades Gebre, PAHO/WHO’s disease prevention and control adviser, said the World Bank has put the cost, globally, at more than $800 billion.“Influenza pandemics have occurred and there will be another,” said Dr Gebre.

“We don’t know the severity and the timing.“We do not know if it is H5N1 or a different one. The timing is unpredictable. We have never been as close (to a flu pandemic) since 1968.“We have a window of opportunity to act now. Avian influenza is not necessarily just for the birds.”

Dr Gebre was among presenters at the three-day Ministry of Health seminar in Risk Communication Specific to Avian and Pandemic Influenza which began Monday. It was held in collaboration with the Pan American Health Organisation.He pointed out that influenza “is one of the main causes of mortality” and poses “one of the greatest health problems” globally.

It claims more than 1,000 lives per million population especially in the those 65 years and over, while increasing the number of hospital admissions and work absenteeism, he said.

The first pandemic resembling influenza was recorded in 1580 CE. Since then 31 influenza pandemics have been recorded, three of which occurred during the 20th century – 1918, 1957 and 1968.The seasonal flu is a respiratory illness that can be transmitted person to person, he said. Most people have some immunity and a vaccine (flu shot) is available.

This kind of flu occurs mostly in winter in temperate climates and in the tropics throughout the year, he said.In developing countries, much less is known about its impact. However it is estimated by epidemiologists and clinicians that there is a high attack and fatality rate there, said Dr Gebre.

The Avian flu is caused by a virus that occurs naturally among wild birds, he explained.“The H5N1 variant is deadly to domestic fowl and can be transmitted from birds to humans,” he warned. “There is no human immunity and no vaccine available.

“A unique characteristic of the virus, especially influenza viruses, is that they are constantly changing and mutating.”The widespread persistence of the H5N1 in poultry poses two main risks for human health, he said.The first is the risk of direct infection when the virus passes from poultry to humans, resulting in “very severe diseases,” he said.The second risk, “of even grater concern,” he said, is that the virus, if given enough opportunities, will change into a form that is highly infectious to humans and spreads easily from person to person.

“And there comes the spring board for the pandemic,” he said.

“No society would be exempt; no economy would be left unscathed,” he added.

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