x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

GCC moves on swine flu strategy

As the prayers and celebrations of Ramadan draw closer, GCC health ministers are urging people to avoid congested spaces to help contain swine flu.

Abu Dhabi // As the prayers and celebrations of Ramadan draw closer, GCC health ministers are urging people to avoid congested spaces to help contain swine flu. The announcement came after a meeting of the ministers in Kuwait on Saturday, when officials also asked members to create a region-wide H1N1 strategy to take effect at the start of the school year next month.

The World Health Organisation has already advised people to "reduce the time spent in crowded settings if possible" to protect themselves against H1N1, the swine flu virus. Dr Ali bin Shakar, the director general of the Ministry of Health and chairman of the national committee to combat swine flu, said yesterday that health ministers approved "the adoption of home isolation, in accordance with WHO standards, to be implemented from now on in all the GCC countries as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the virus among families and community members".

In the UAE, people with H1N1 are kept in hospital until they have been treated and fully recovered from the virus. So far, no deaths from swine flu have been reported within the country's borders. Dr bin Shakar also said the UAE, Bahrain and Oman had been asked at the meeting to draft a unified plan to help manage any spread of the virus when pupils return to school in September. This plan would be adopted by all GCC countries once it was finalised.

Dr bin Shakar added that his department would act in accordance with the WHO regulations and close schools if it became necessary. The statement released by the health ministry yesterday said all GCC countries would continue to be vigilant with those people travelling from abroad who displayed symptoms and could be infectious. It also said people with chronic diseases such respiratory problems who display influenza A symptoms should be a priority.

Dr bin Shakar added that tests would also be conducted on people with breathing problems or pneumonia, and high-risk individuals such as pregnant women, heart and blood platelet patients, diabetics, HIV cases, the morbidly obese and those with genetic blood diseases. However, the statement did not make it clear whether this referred just to those displaying symptoms, or everyone in the UAE with a chronic disease. Attempts to clarify were unsuccessful and repeated phone calls to Dr bin Shakar went unanswered yesterday.

In his statement he also said every school would have a dedicated team comprising one teacher and one nurse to look out for potential cases and keep people informed about the virus. The teams would also be responsible for alerting the authorities to any positive cases. According to officials, the plan must include measures to educate pupils and teachers in looking for signs and symptoms of the flu, and how to prevent it through basic hygiene such as hand washing.

Any pupils affected by the virus must stay at home for at least 24 hours after they have been treated and the symptoms have subsided, Dr bin Shakar said. "The working plan prepared for the new school year will include three angles," he added. "These are: healthcare education for students, teachers and parents; training teachers and other school staff on how to respond to potential or known cases; and training parents on how to deal with positive cases."

He also said the Ministry of Health was training people in the Ministry of Education on the scientific principles relating to the disease, especially in terms of awareness, prevention and containment. The exact number of cases in the UAE remains unclear although, based on figures released sporadically by officials, estimates range from about 125 up to 200. In July, the ministry said it would release figures every Monday but no announcement has been made for the past two weeks.

Although the state news agency WAM yesterday released the latest figures for South Korea, there was no mention of the UAE situation. According to the Oman News Agency, the H1N1 Follow Up and Management National Committee announced 16 new cases, bringing the total to 355. Saudi Arabia has the highest number in the region, with about 600 cases, Kuwait has 560 and Lebanon 352, according to the regional office of the WHO. However, it added that Oman had 123, indicating that many of the figures could be out of date.

Last month Dr bin Shakar announced it would be mandatory for all school pupils aged five and up to be vaccinated against the H1N1 virus once the vaccine is ready. However, doctors have said the vaccine will not be ready for the start of the school term, but that this should not cause panic. munderwood@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Kareem Shaheen