Continent may be severely affected by swine flu

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Johannesburg - Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has warned that although the H1N1 Influenza Virus, also known as swine flu, spread to Africa last, the continent may be more severely affected by it. 

"It is well known that this continent has always been worst affected by any outbreak of a communicable disease - whether it is HIV, Tuberculosis, Malaria or one of the haemorragic fevers," Dr Motsoaledi said on Tuesday, at the World Health Organisation's Regional Conference on the pandemic.

Dr Motsoaledi said it was important for all countries within the continent to ensure they were adequately prepared to deal with the pandemic. 

"What is of advantage for us is that we can learn from the experiences of others," he said.

The outbreak of swine flu, which started in Mexico and the United States of America, has since spread to many other countries resulting in high morbidity and some mortality.

The minister noted that from the experiences of other countries, it was true that most of these countries focused initially on containing the virus and when the infection spread, focused on mitigating its effects on their communities. 

He said their experiences showed that containing the virus was not possible and that resources were best spent on mitigating its effect on the community. 

"Most health systems have coped well, however, some have seen a level of social disruption, specifically when schools and businesses had to close. 

"Some countries have reported additional strain on health personnel, hospital beds, laboratories and resources - this is of particular importance to us as resources in Africa are always limited," Dr Motsoaledi said.

He added that he hoped the potential effects of the pandemic on Africa's resource-constrained and already challenged health care systems would be adequately addressed during the three-day conference. 

Referring to the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the minister noted that history has taught the department that epidemics and pandemics can have enormous social and economic consequences in a closely interconnected and interdependent world. 

"SARS caused economic losses and social disruption far beyond the affected countries and far out of proportion to the number of cases and deaths. 

"The recent cholera outbreak experienced in some countries in the Southern African Development Community is also an example which not only resulted in high morbidity and mortality but also social disruption amongst the populations in the region," he said. 

He however pointed out that experiences during the cholera epidemic prepared the continent well for this pandemic as it assisted in putting effective systems in place to deal with it. 

He acknowledged the implementation of the International Health Regulations since July 2007 as a positive development that contributed towards preparedness in the region.

As of 6 August 2009, 591 cases and two deaths have been reported with local transmission established in two provinces, Gauteng and the Western Cape. 

Minister Motsoaledi also commended the WHO for organising the conference at this stage of the pandemic in the African region. 

He said the conference afforded the region an opportunity to examine the potential impact of the H1N1 pandemic on member states and address any shortcomings that may exist in its preparedness plans. 

"We appreciate the fact that the WHO, through this conference, aim to address any gaps in the Preparedness and Response Plans with the view to mitigate the impact of the pandemic," said Minister Motsolaedi.