Political violence

2009-04-29 00:00

As if one major global scare — the worldwide financial collapse — weren’t enough, along comes another in the form of the rapidly spreading swine flu. The World Health Organisation has raised its pandemic alert level to phase four, indicating that the infection can spread between human beings to cause community-level outbreaks. The disease, which appears to have originated in Mexico, has killed some 150 people there, and, air travel being the weak link in disease transmission in the modern world, the disease has spread fast, to the United States, Canada, Europe and New Zealand.

Despite its rapid spread, some aspects are encouraging. First, outside Mexico, it so far appears not to be lethal and symptoms are mild and treatable. Second, forewarned by the bird-flu threat of a few years ago, many countries are well equipped to deal with an outbreak, having stockpiled antiviral drugs and devised efficient ways of supplying them to large numbers of people at short notice. Third, the simplest, and some of the most effective, ways of preventing transmission — frequent, thorough hand-washing and the wearing of face masks — are easy to teach and cheap to implement.

Thus, besides being medically prepared, the most important facet of any preventative programme has to be education of the general public in such a way as to minimise the panic that can be caused when people confront an unseen enemy without the necessary information and tools. After all, the very word “influenza” carries an ancient menace: it’s the Italian word people of past centuries used to describe what they believed to be an invisible and dangerous “influence” capable of flowing through windows and under doors to infect those within.

We know South Africa’s health professionals are on the alert, but is the country ready? Is our health system, short-staffed and creaking at the seams financially, currently affected by a strike, up to dealing with this new strain of flu? Are we able to go into action swiftly, advertising, informing, handing out masks, with antivirals in stock and available for distribution? Some assurances from the national Department of Health would be welcome.

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