Pakistan

Pakistan: Nine swine flu deaths prompt fear

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ISLAMABAD, 24 December 2009 (IRIN) - The death of at least nine people from H1N1 influenza since May 2009 has led to rising public fear and concern, and experts are calling on the government to introduce more preventative measures.

Screening was introduced at airports during the summer but little else has been done to combat the disease.

"The authorities are not taking effective measures to check the disease. There is no strategy in place for this," Ashraf Nizami, president-elect of the Pakistan Medical Association in Punjab, said. Nine cases have now been confirmed in the province.

Experts say one of the factors behind the recent rise in H1N1 cases has been the return from Saudi Arabia at the end of November of thousands of pilgrims who had gone on the Haj pilgrimage.

"The return of 150,000 pilgrims in cold, dry weather raises the risk of swine flu as in these conditions the virus spreads rapidly," Rafiq Khanani, president of the Infection Control Society of Pakistan, said at a seminar in Karachi.

He suggested thermal scanners should have been placed at all airports before the Haj pilgrim influx began.

Rashid Jooma, director-general of health for the federal government, said there were 76 confirmed cases and nine deaths.

Twenty-six other people have been tested positive by the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi, which also reported two additional deaths in the city. Under government policy, all positive samples need to be sent to the National Institute for Health for confirmation.

Government measures

Jooma said "about two million vaccines" would be available by mid-January, with vulnerable people, including pregnant women and health workers, to be inoculated first.

"We have thermal scanners at all major airports, but at Karachi so far only one is installed at the Haj terminal. A second scanner is being installed soon to cover other travellers," he told IRIN.

Isolation wards had also been set up at major government hospitals, he added.

However, many say the government action is too little and too late.

"There is not much point in making statements and promises now. I am not sending my two children to school. Many pupils are sick and I am worried my sons could contract swine flu," Asiya Gul, 30, told IRIN.

Healthcare practitioners continue to try and calm fears. "The disease is manageable, especially in the early stages," said Javed Akram, principal of the Allama Iqbal Medical College in Lahore. He advised people to "avoid public places, wash their hands frequently and consult a doctor if they had symptoms of the disease".

kh/ed/cb

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