flu: Don’t panic, be ready
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
Turkey has it now. So does Indonesia. Sri Lanka seems to be getting
we or won’t we be hit by bird (avian) flu? If it does invade
our country are we ready? Like in other countries if the H5N1 virus
jumps from birds to humans how will we tackle it?
are the crucial issues being tackledby both the Epidemiology Unit
of the Health Ministry and the Department of Animal Production and
“Sooner or later we will get it. How soon is the issue,”
warns Epidemiologist Dr. Nihal Abeysinghe.
that there is no cause for panic, Dr. Abeysinghe however strongly
urges that Sri Lanka should be ready to face such an eventuality.
In the latest outbreak of the H5N1 virus in 2005/2006 January, of
the 164 people who contracted the disease in 12 countries, 81 have
avian flu surfacing in Turkey and Indonesia has caused considerable
concern to us,” he says, explaining that the Epidemiology
Unit which has taken on the responsibility of managing the human
side of the problem is attempting not to take any chances.
consignments of protective gear, 100,000 kits in all, have been
brought down. The kits each comprising a pair of goggles, a mask,
an apron and a pair of gloves are being distributed to hospitals
around the country. “The Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH)
has already been given protective gear and we are distributing the
others to 20 ‘sentinel sites’,” says Dr. Abeysinghe
pointing out that these sites which will double up as surveillance
units include all the Colombo group of hospitals such as the National
Hospital, Kalubowila, Ragama and one each from different geographical
regions such as Jaffna, Karapitiya, Vavuniya, Nuwara Eliya and Polonnaruwa.
have had bad experiences before. When we wanted stocks at the height
of some crisis we have not been able to get them, so we are getting
ready now,” he says. According to him some private sector
organizations including a well-known global bank and international
agencies have already got down protective gear for their personnel.
hospital directors and Deputy Provincial Directors of Health have
also been sent a checklist and requested to prepare contingency
plans. “We will be reviewing these plans by end January,”
contingency plan would deal with such vital aspects as accepting
at OPD level patients suspected to have contracted the H5N1 virus,
detecting whether they are having the disease, isolation and management,
and thereafter restriction of hospital use and transfer of critically
Regional Epidemiologists have also been sensitized to pass on the
message not only to their health staff but also to institutions
in their area and the public.
IDH, however, will have a separate emergency plan. “We have
equipped them and trained the staff. The World Bank has agreed to
support the development of this emergency plan and we will coordinate
with the hospital staff, the running of the emergency room, intensive
care and isolation room,” says Dr. Abeysinghe.
drugs have been ordered initially for 1,000 patients. Stocks are
being awaited in two months as only one company in the world is
producing them. The Epidemiology Unit, having secured funding from
the World Health Organization, has also requested the Medical Supplies
Division to order laboratory reagents needed for testing the human
virus at the Medical Research Institute.
virologist at the MRI who does the testing and one technician worked
with Prof. Malik Sriyal Peiris — who was part of the team
that identified the SARS virus — in December for one week
when he was here on holiday. In February they will undergo more
training in Hong Kong,” he says.
final advice from Sri Lanka’s Chief Epidemiologist is not
to panic. “Don’t fear to eat chicken and egg because
egg is the cheapest way of getting the body’s protein requirement.”
The moment we identify the avian flu virus in the country, we will
inform the people, Dr. Abeysinghe assures.
Keeping a close tab on the region
A sub-regional conference on the avian flu is due to be held in
New Delhi, India on February 7 and 8, with Health Minister Nimal
Siripala de Silva, Livestock Minister C.B. Ratnayake, Epidemiologist
Dr. Nihal Abeysinghe and Director General of the Department of Animal
Production and Health Dr. S.K.R. Amerasekera attending.
want to keep a close tab on what is happening in neighbouring countries,”
says Dr. Amerasekera. In Sri Lanka, he says, normal surveillance
is being carried out for the bird flu virus among animals.