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Learning the lessons from SARS and bird flu

A woman wears a mask protect herself from a possible swine flu outbreak at a farm in Cilebut, Bogor Regency, West Java Province, Indonesia
(Jefri Aries/IRIN)

Thailand was quick to react to the threat of an international swine flu epidemic when news of the disease's possible spread broke a few days ago.

Thermal scanners were immediately installed in the four main international airports to monitor incoming passengers.

"The suspected cases will be put under surveillance for three to five days during their stay in Thailand," said the Health Minister, Witthya Kaewparadai.

But the first suspected case of swine flu proved to be a false alarm.

Laboratory tests confirmed that a 42-year-old Thai woman, who was quarantined following a recent trip to Mexico and the US, was suffering from ordinary human flu, Yong Pooworawan, a virologist at Chulalongkorn Hospital in Bangkok, said on 29 April.

In line with other countries in Asia, Thailand is on high alert, having had a painful experience during the avian flu epidemic, which resulted in a dozen deaths and thousands of chickens being culled.

Authorities have moved swiftly to ensure any potential outbreak is monitored, while necessary measures are being taken to protect people and pig farms from the virus.

"Strong and effective swine flu surveillance will safeguard the country from the disease," said Kamnuan Ungschusak, spokesman for the Disease Control Department.

Regional preparedness

Throughout Asia, surveillance, detection and treatment programmes are being geared up.

In the past decade, the region has been hit twice with the spread of animal-based diseases - SARS, which originated in southern China and Hong Kong in 2003, and avian flu in 2004-2005.

"The Asian region is much better prepared for an outbreak now than it would have been, as a result of the experience of the outbreak of bird flu and SARS," Julie Hall, an infectious disease expert with the World Health Organization (WHO) regional office in Manila, told IRIN.

"The countries of the region have invested heavily in pandemic preparedness, and as a result, are now well prepared for early detection and rapid response programmes," she said. The UN health body has been working closely with many Asian governments on preparedness.

"Early detection is a crucial part of this process," Khanchit Limpakarnjanarat, WHO's regional adviser for communicable disease surveillance and response for Southeast Asia, told IRIN from New Delhi.

"We must be vigilant, the situation is fluid," he said.

WHO has supported a network of laboratories in the region that are capable of detection and early diagnosis.

Countries have also been working together since the SARS and avian influenza epidemics on coordinated responses to possible pandemics.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is closely monitoring the situation and will work with member countries and partner organisations (including the UN) to take appropriate steps towards strengthening cross-border collaboration, an ASEAN official told IRIN.

"Currently, ASEAN has a stockpile of antiviral agents and personal protective equipment, which are readily available for the ASEAN Member States, for rapid response and containment of outbreaks that may occur in the region," according to an ASEAN statement issued on 28 April.

ASEAN has 500,000 courses of antiviral medicine stockpiled in Singapore, and an additional 500,000 courses have been distributed to member countries, the statement added.

Few confirmed cases

Yet so far there have been few reported human cases of swine flu in Asia.

China, where there have been repeated limited outbreaks of swine flu, especially among children and teenagers, in the past, is on full alert.

Several children have reportedly fallen ill with symptoms resembling those of swine flu.

There are three confirmed cases in New Zealand, Tony Ryall, the Health Minister, announced on 28 April, with 11 more being tested.

In Australia, more than 90 people are being tested and six people are undergoing clinical tests in South Korea.

China and Thailand are among the countries reported to have banned imports of meat products from some parts of the USA and Mexico.

But experts say there is no evidence to link exposure to pork with infection.

"Eating well-cooked pork is safe," said Khanchit. "But it needs to be well-cooked."

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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