Suspected swine flu cases in Caribbean as WHO raises alert level

BELMOPAN, Belize, April 30, 2009 – At least one Caribbean country is reporting suspected cases of swine flu and has cancelled major public events, while another has sent samples off for testing, and a third has quarantined students and teachers who returned from Mexico, the epicentre of the disease. All this as the World Health Organisation (WHO) raised the global alert to level five, indicating that a pandemic is now imminent.

All major public events, including the National Agriculture and Trade Show, the Crooked Tree Cashew Fest, and a Morgan Heritage concert scheduled for the long weekend, have been called off in Belize as health authorities investigate at least two suspected cases there.

In Barbados, Minister of Health Donville Inniss also confirmed that at least two local samples had been sent off to the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre (CAREC) in Trinidad and Tobago to be tested for the virus after an increased number of people with flu-like symptoms began seeking medical attention.

And over in the Bahamas, 10 students and teachers who arrived at the beginning of this week are under quarantine.

The decision to put off public events in Belize, which shares a border with Mexico, was taken after a Ministry of Health meeting.

Belize Deputy Director of Health Services at the Ministry of Health Dr Jorge Polanco, who spoke to Love News, said the ministry was informed about two suspected cases yesterday and samples have been sent to the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre in Trinidad.

“Once we get the results we will know if they had swine flu because the reason they were suspect is the fact that they had the influenza symptoms. In addition to that they visited the area Chetumal (capital of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo). The other cases are only rumors because the Ministry has not gotten any official documentation on them as yet,” he said yesterday evening.

The results are expected back by this weekend.

In the meantime, Dr Polanco has urged citizens to exercise special care in order to protect themselves.

“We would like to urge the public to take all the precautionary measures in case you come in contact with someone who has influenza. We would also like to advise anyone who has influenza to cover his or her nose and coughing away from the public. Another thing we strongly recommend is that a person who comes down with flu-like symptoms avoid going to gatherings. If a child has influenza we would recommend that that child not go to school and if an adult has it we would recommend that he or she not go to work. These are the general recommendations that we are emphasising in order to really prevent the spread should these cases turn out to be swine flu,” the ministry official said.

There has been no word about classes being cancelled, but epidemiologist at the Ministry of Health, Dr Paul Edwards said a decision could be made later, if the cases are confirmed, to close school as Mexico has done.

The news of the epidemic possibly reaching the Caribbean came as the WHO raised the global alert level for the swine flu virus to five, just one short of the maximum. This means that there has been sustained human to human transmission in at least two countries and a pandemic is imminent.

In Mexico there have been 168 suspected deaths, with eight confirmed; one death in the US – a Mexican toddler who had entered the country for medical attention – and at least 91 confirmed cases; New Zealand, 13 confirmed cases; Canada, 19 confirmed cases; the United Kingdom, five confirmed cases; Spain, 10 confirmed cases; Germany, three confirmed cases; Israel and Costa Rica, two confirmed cases each; and the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Peru, one confirmed case each.

In the Bahamas, Health Minister Hubert Minnis said yesterday that special attention is being given to the students and teachers who arrived from Mexico on Monday.

“They are under voluntary quarantine and are under the watch of our surveillance teams. Up to today, all are well,” he said yesterday, adding that another person who recently returned from a trip to Mexico is also the watch of health authorities.

Minnis said his ministry as well as the Department of Public Health, the Public Hospitals Authority, and other related government ministries and agencies have all activated their preparedness plan.

As in the other Caribbean countries, surveillance at all ports of entry has increased in Belize, particularly for travellers who have visited places where cases have been confirmed.

Swine flu is a respiratory disease of pigs and humans become infected through close contact with sick pigs or persons who have contracted the virus.

While health authorities have said that humans cannot be infected by eating pork or pork products, Antigua and Barbuda and Suriname have banned the importation of those items from Mexico and the United States.

Symptoms of swine flu resemble seasonal influenza and include fever, lethargy, lack of appetite, coughing, runny nose, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.