Red alert for deadly swine flu

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

The country's only international airport and all seaports have been placed on 24-hour alert as swine flu -- considered deadlier than the recent Avian flu -- spreads across the world and a WHO 'red alert' is on for a possible global pandemic.

Round-the-clock health desks had been put in place, assured Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Paba Palihawadana, explaining that the Epidemiology Unit was in contact with airport, Customs and airline authorities to ensure that no sick traveller slips in to the country without being spotted. She said the health desks manned by doctors and Public Health Inspectors were not only scrutinizing flight and passenger details to check from where they were coming, even after breaking journey or being in transit, but also getting the passengers to fill out health declaration forms.

The Sunday Times understands the airport has also been advised to install the two thermal scanners brought down during the alert for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) to detect people with fever.

If there is the slightest indication that a passenger has flu-like symptoms, the health desk would check them out.

"If there is even an iota of suspicion that it is swine flu, that person will be transferred to the Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH). If not, the health personnel will advise them under the 'risk communication' plan and allow them to go home, but inform the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) of that area to keep an eye on the person," Dr. Palihawadana said.

The moves came as the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a 'public health emergency of international concern' and raised the pandemic alert level of swine flu firstly from Phase 3 to 4 and then Phase 5 (when there is human-to-human transmission of a deadly virus into at least two countries in a WHO region) within a few days.

While Phase 3 indicates sporadic cases in humans but with no significant human-to-human transmission, Phase 4 is sounded when human-to-human transmission causes community-level outbreaks.

This indicates that swine flu is considered deadlier than avian flu which hit the world a few years ago but remained at a Phase 3 alert on the WHO's pandemic scale of 1 to 6. With Phase 5 giving a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent, Phase 6 is the red alert that a pandemic is underway, with the lethal virus spreading to another country in a different WHO region, an expert said. As Sri Lanka, which escaped both SARS and the avian flu, geared to meet this new threat by implementing emergency plans at the entry points since last Monday, routine reporting from the 20 sentinel surveillance sites from across the country has lso been strengthened, The Sunday Times learns.

Explaining the process, the Chief Epidemiologist said that since the outbreak of the avian flu worldwide, specimens have been collected from patients with influenza-like illnesses who seek treatment at the outpatients' departments of 20 hospitals to check whether there is a mutation of a virus or even a new virus emerging in the country.

The tests are carried out by the Medical Research Institute. "We know what types of influenza are circulating in the country and we are collecting both specimens and data under this disease surveillance," she said.

With warnings that rather than containment of swine flu, countries should look at mitigating its impact, The Sunday Times understands that Sri Lanka also has a stockpile of anti-viral drugs, brought down during the avian flu threat, to meet this emergency aspect as well.

Pork imports banned

All pork imports to the country have been halted as of last week, Livestock Development Minister C.B. Ratnayake announced.

He said that around 1,770 kilos of Pork-based items a month were brought in the form of canned products, bacon and sausage meat usually for five-star hotels and supermarkets.

These products are imported mainly from Asian countries such as Thailand and China. Circulars were sent out to all entry points as soon as the swine flu alert came, Mr. Ratnayake told The Sunday Times, adding that within the country, officers of the Department of Animal Production and Health were visiting not only large pig farms but also small piggeries weekly to collect blood samples to check for swine flu.
There are around 10,000 pig farms in the country.

Soon after he took office he also initiated a programme to collect data on all domestic animals, he said, as Sri Lanka did not have the right numbers. This census is on now.

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