Speech by the Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi at the WHO Regional Conference on Pandemic Influenza A (H1N1) 2009

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Minister's Opening Remarks
WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Sambo,
WHO Country Representatives and Officials,
Representatives and Officials from Ministries of the Health from the AFRO,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

The outbreak of Influenza A (H1N1) that started in Mexico and the United States of America has spread to many other countries resulting in high morbidity and some mortality. 

This conference happens at a significant time for South Africa; it happens one week after we have confirmed our first death. The death of Ruan Muller, a 22 year old university student, is sincerely regrettable as is the death of the second patient, from Durban. This conference therefore should empower us to strengthen our response to this pandemic.

What is of particular concern to us as Africans is that although the pandemic has spread to our continent last, we 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. It is therefore essential for all countries within the continent to ensure that we are adequately prepared for all of these but in the present context prepared to deal with the Influenza Pandemic. What is of advantage for us is that we can learn from the experiences of others.

From the experiences of other countries, it is 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. Their experiences have shown that containing the virus is not possible and that resources are 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. It is my hope that the potential effects of the pandemic on our resource-constrained and already challenged health care systems would be adequately addressed at this conference. 

In addition to their human toll, history has taught us that epidemics and pandemics can have enormous social and economic consequences in a closely interconnected and interdependent world. For example, in 2003 the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (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 (SADC) is also an example which not only resulted in high morbidity and mortality but also social disruption amongst the populations in the region. However, experiences during the cholera epidemic prepared us well for this pandemic as it assisted in putting effective systems in place to deal with the pandemic. The implementation of the International Health Regulations since July 2007 is also a positive development that contributed towards preparedness in the region.

Concerning how South Africa is affected by the pandemic, my officials will later share the details with you. At this stage suffice it to say that as of 06 August 2009, 591 cases and 2 deaths have been reported with local transmission established in 2 of our provinces - Gauteng and Western Cape. 

I would like to take this opportunity to commend the World Health Organization for organizing this important conference at this stage of the pandemic in the African region. It affords us with an opportunity to examine the potential impact of the A (H1N1) pandemic on Member States and address any shortcomings that may exist in our 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. 

The South African Ministry of Health would like to take this opportunity to thank the WHO for hosting this conference in our country; and wish the organizers and delegates fruitful deliberations that will strengthen the continent's response to the pandemic.

I thank you.