H1N1 avian influenza: Bird flu hits in September but it’s better to be safe than sorry, say experts

‘You can eat all the chickens you want, because it’s not a big threat here’.

Express June 23, 2011


Workshop visitors wondered why bird flu awareness started so early in the year, since the influenza hits in September, when birds in Siberia spread their wings to migrate to the coastal areas of Pakistan. Usually that’s when health experts caution the break of H1N1 avian influenza or bird flu, which the birds pass on to humans.

A programme was organised at Marriot Hotel for the prevention and control of the pandemic avian influenza H1N1 on Thursday. The Pakistan Government ministry of health and the Associations of Health Journalists of Pakistan organised the seminar in collaboration with the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared bird flu a global pandemic (stage 6) in 2009 after evidence showed that it was spreading in the southern hemisphere. “There is no chance the virus will come to Pakistan,” dismissed Sindh Health Secretary Syed Hashim Raza Zaidi, adding, “But safety and preventive measures of all influenza viruses are important.”

The national cell received 2,000 samples for testing from 2009 to 2011 and 702 samples tested positive for H1N1, according to the Ministry of Health, Islamabad National Programme for the Control and Prevention of Avian & Pandemic Influenza (NPCPAI) programme manager, Dr Salma Kausar Ali. So far this year, there have been 12 reported deaths due to the disease, while 37 cases have been confirmed.

Dr Ali said there are three categories of the influenza: A, B and C. Type A can infect people, birds, pigs, horses, seals, whales and other animals. Type B affects only humans, while type C causes a mild illness in humans.

“You can eat all the eggs and chicken you want,” said NCPCPAI’s project director, Prof. Dr Muhammad Akram Munir. Despite fears and several reported cases of bird flu in Pakistan, it is not a serious threat, he assured.

“This is because Pakistan’s poultry industry is ranked above several others, including India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Iran. There is a good number of poultry products exported from Pakistan,” he said.

Speaking about the NPCPAI, Dr Munir said the project started on July 1, 2007, and continued till June 30, 2010, and started with a total cost of nearly Rs1.18 billion.  The purpose of the project was to improve and scale up the surveillance, reporting and diagnostics of the influenza to control the disease. Health EDO Dr Nasir Javed asked people to stay calm, even if they hear about the outbreak of bird flu because it can be treated with medication. “Last year, the panic created about the outbreak resulted in a shortage of medicines since all the stocks were bought and later sold in black,” he said.

In case a patient is tested positive with the flu, the patient, their family and treating doctors must get vaccinated. The national cell provided 10,000 vaccines to immunize hospital paramedic staffers in 18 towns of the city, according to the identified priority list in terms of vulnerability. Although a virology lab was constructed at Civil Hospital, Karachi in December, 2010 for flu detection, Dr Javed said his department needs a separate set-up to coordinate efforts across the city. He said a request has already been made with the national program in-charge to help create a set up within City District Government Karachi premises.

The medical superintendent at Sindh Government Hospital in Ibrahim Hyderi said there have not been any cases reported in the area so far. “They only start coming up after September,” she said.

Dr Ali said that the imported vaccine for influenza is not checked as thoroughly as the polio vaccine but the medicine has details of its manufacture, expiry and efficacy.

The health secretary, Syed Hashim Raza Zaidi, said the provincial government plans to conduct mass awareness for health reporters. Dr Salma Kausar Ali said that the federal health department is setting up disease response centres in different districts in Sindh on the same footing as the disease response centre in Islamabad. Regional activities for prevention and control include a influenza surveillance network, meetings to prepare national preparedness plans for pandemic influenza and inter-provincial meetings to be arranged every quarter.

Peak season: From September to November

Symtoms: Flu, inflammation, shortness of breath, chest pain, etc.

Preventive measures: Injectable influenza vaccine is the best immunity for those under threat. Preventive measures for those affected include coughing etiquette, social isolation, washing of hands, use of masks, rest and diet.

Best time to get vaccinated: October or November

Who should get vaccinated: People at high risk for complications from the flu such as poultry farmers, paramedics, children, pregnant women and people between the ages of 50 and 64

Treatment: There is a virology laboratory at Civil hospital for flu testing. The government has also arranged a 40-bed unit at Abbassi Shaheed Hospital with a five-bed ICU. The unit is equipped with all the required facilities, including monitors and ventilators, to treat bird flu and any other influenza flu, said the hospital’s medical superintendent, Dr Nadeem Ahmed Rajput.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 24th, 2011.

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