Sunday, June 14, 2009

DOH: Flu pandemic no reason to panic, A(H1N1) mild compared to SARS, avian flu

MANILA, Philippines - Expect more A(H1N1) cases in the Philippines, but there’s no reason to panic, at least for now. Despite the World Health Organization (WHO)’s declaration that it is already a pandemic, the new flu strain has not yet evolved into a threat similar to the SARS corona virus and avian flu that cause acute diseases.

“It needs to be emphasized … that the current grading of a pandemic by WHO focuses on the geographic spread of the virus and not on its virulence or its capability to cause deaths or severe disease," said Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.

He stressed that good personal hygiene and avoidance of crowded areas were still the best defense against the A(H1N1) virus, which is mild in nature and has no unique symptoms that could differentiate it from seasonal flu.

Duque said he has discussed the nature of the virus with DOH regional officials and hospitals in the provinces are prepared in case of a community level outbreak, which is defined as virus transmission that has become difficult to trace to the source of infection.

On Friday, Nueva Ecija provincial health officer Dr. Benjamin Lopez reported that 11 students from Hilera Elementary School in Jaen town have tested positive for the virus. The figure is not included in the 92 cases previously reported by DOH on Thursday.

In a GMAnews report, Lopez said health officials have yet to find out how the students got infected, as none of them had traveled abroad recently or had any close contact with A(H1N1) patients. All of them are observing self-quarantine and recovering at home, he added.

Since the virus was first detected in April, nearly 30,000 cases in 74 countries have been recorded, with 144 deaths. WHO director-general Dr. Margaret Chan declared on Thursday: “The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic."

Despite the contagion, the WHO said it did not expect a sudden and dramatic jump in the number of severe cases due to the new flu strain. A(H1N1) fatality rate is currently low at only 0.5 percent. SARS and avian flu kill about half of their victims, while dengue in the Philippines has a fatality rate of one to two percent.

“There were cases in the Philippines when the patient recovered only after two to three days without even taking medication," said Dr. Eric Tayag, head of the Department of Health’s National Epidemiology Center.

First batch of swine flu vaccine

On Friday, Swiss drugs manufacturer Novartis announced that it has produced the first batch of vaccine for the new flu strain and clinical trials will begin in July.

"Novartis has successfully completed the production of the first batch of influenza A(H1N1) vaccine, weeks ahead of expectations," the company said in a statement.

"The speed advantages of our cell-based production approach and our unwavering commitment to address this public health emergency have resulted in our ability to provide the fastest possible response to this outbreak," the statement quoted Dr. Andrin Oswald, CEO of Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, as saying.

The company expects to obtain a license by fall so it can supply more than 30 governments that have made requests to Novartis for influenza A(H1N1) vaccine ingredients, the statement added.

No rhyme or reason

According to WHO, the new flu strain infected mostly young people under 25 years, while most of the severe and fatal infections occurred in adults between 30 and 50 years.

“Further spread is considered inevitable," Chan said. So far, most of the infections have been reported in developed countries, but she said it would be “prudent to anticipate a bleaker picture" if the pandemic spreads to poorer nations.

“The virus writes the rules, and this one, like all influenza viruses, can change the rules, without rhyme or reason, at any time," Chan said.

In contrast, the behavior of the avian flu virus was “more definite" as it was ascertained that humans who contracted the disease had exposure to birds, Tayag said.

SARS also has a “stable identity," according to Tayag. “Because the disease was severe and the patient needed to be hospitalized, the spread of the disease was contained. Only doctors and nurses taking care of the patient contracted SARS."

But he said A(H1N1)’s behavior is new and unusual. “It’s not sure whether it wants to kill or just spread a mild disease similar to that of common flu."

Tayag cited the behavior of the so-called Spanish influenza virus, which was mild at first but became more deadly when it re-emerged. The similar A(H1N1) strain killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people and infected 500 million people in 1918, when public health systems were not as advanced as they are today. - GMANews.TV

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