Health authorities in denial?

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By 2017-04-09

By Gagani Weerakoon
& Umesh Moramudali

While the Epidemiology Unit of the Ministry of Health has recorded a staggering 30,486 cases of dengue in the first three months of 2017 alone, another infectious disease is slowly rearing its ugly head. There is no doubt that Influenza A (H1N1) could soon reach epidemic proportions, unless prompt action is taken to curb the spread of the virus.

Despite attempts by the local authorities to play down the seriousness of the issue, the Qatar Foreign Ministry has already urged its nationals not to travel to Sri Lanka due to health concerns. They have put out a travel warning on their official Twitter page urging people not to visit the island nation as H1N1 is reportedly spreading throughout the Central Province, which includes Kandy, a favourite tourist hotspot.

The Qatar Foreign Ministry in their Twitter said the Sri Lankan authorities have confirmed the spread of swine flu (H1N1) in Sri Lanka. Many people are infected with the disease and also many deaths have been reported due to the flu, foreign media reported.

The Qatar Foreign Ministry urged nationals not to travel to Sri Lanka except in cases of extreme necessity until health conditions improve.

The Sri Lankan mission there is currently in discussion with Qatari authorities to revise the travel advisory. Meanwhile, Health Ministry Secretary Anura Jayawickrama in a communiqué addressing Foreign Ministry Secretary Esala Weerakoon on 5 April 2017 pointed out that the seasonal increase of influenza activity due to Influenza A (H1N1), on par with the regional situation, doesn't warrant issue of travel restrictions to Sri Lanka.

The communiqué noted that the adverse climatic conditions being experienced in the country at present, has given rise to the spread of the fever at various locations, especially in the districts of Kandy, Moneragala, Kilinochchi and Jaffna.

The communiqué further noted that compared to the first two months of 2017, the patient numbers being reported has significantly decreased.

Jayawickrama also pointed out that from 1 January to 31 March 2017 the Virology Laboratory of the Medical Research Institute (MRI) of Sri Lanka has tested 1,503 respiratory samples from clinically suspected Influenza patients.

"Out of this, 570 were positive for Influenza A virus and another 58 were positive for Influenza B. Although there were few deaths reported among people with chronic medical conditions due to influenza complicated pneumonia, there was no significant increase of pneumonia related deaths in the country as a whole," he opined.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne dismissing claims that there was an H1N1 epidemic in the country blamed media for causing unnecessary fear.

"The media is blowing this out of proportion. As a result, Qatar has issued a travel warning against visiting us," Minister Senaratne said.

Addressing the weekly Cabinet briefing, he said H1N1 is another virus similar to influenza virus. While the disease is spreading in some parts of the country the situation is not as dire as reported and there is no danger of it becoming a countrywide epidemic, he added.

The Health Minister, however, said H1N1 is another form of influenza and it is dangerous to pregnant mothers, children and kidney patients, and therefore should take precautions.

While Minister Senaratne blamed media for spreading fear, all faculties of the University of Peradeniya were closed down indefinitely by 4 April 2017 as over 3,000 students at the university have taken ill with a viral flu.

Vice Chancellor of the University, Upul Dissanayake said he made this decision after it was recommended by an advisory committee comprising all the Deans at the university.

Dissanayake explained that they hoped to close the University for the upcoming Sinhala and Tamil New Year from 9 April, but they had to close earlier given the grave health situation.

The date on which the university would be re-opened has not been decided and is to be informed to the students at a later date.

Many of the students who fell sick had sought treatment from the university medical unit as well as nearby government hospitals.

Director General of Kandy General Hospital, Dr. Saman Ratnayake, said the students from the university have been allocated a separate ward for treatment.

Meanwhile, Central Provincial Health Service Director Shanthi said that H1N1 virus was spreading fast in the province, and 17 people, including two pregnant women, have died during the last three months in the province.

Misinformation

Reports about around 200 Maldivians diagnosed with H1N1 virus being treated at the Lanka Hospitals stormed social media with reports increased about possible outbreak of the flu.

However, Lanka Hospitals authorities categorically rejected rumours circulating on social media websites that Maldivian patients diagnosed with swine flu had been admitted to the hospital and that several of them had died.

Hospital authorities said only 12 Maldivians were currently undergoing treatment – 10 were surgical operations and two were for general medical care, but there were none admitted with symptoms of swine flu.

Commenting on the spread of H1N1 Influenza, Deepa Gamage, Consultant Epidemiologist of the Epidemiology Unit, told Ceylon Today, that one Maldivian child taking treatment at a private hospital reported dead due to the disease, but it was mainly due to late admission of the patient to the hospital.

"A H1N1 is only one nature of influenza and is a normal virus. However, it is risky for those who are vulnerable such as old people, children and pregnant women. So far, around 20 have died in the entire country. They had died due to pneumonia. This is common as even though you are diagnosed of having H1N1 virus, the cause of the death would be pneumonia in most cases.

We do the count based on that, she said.

While acknowledging that there are Maldivians who are taking treatments in the country at the moment, she said the cause of the spreading of the virus was not them. Meanwhile, All Ceylon Nurses' Union has written to the Health Minister to take necessary steps to provide adequate measures to ensure the safety of the staff working in hospitals in affected areas.

"Around 60 patients were diagnosed in Matale Hospital alone of having A H1N1 of which five have died. Out of these five deaths, one was pregnant. Two members of the nursing staff were also diagnosed with the flu. We pointed out that not having enough precautionary measures like N19 masks or isolation wards to treat the suspected cases have resulted in causing the spread of the disease. Also, MRI is the only institution which has research facilities and it takes at least two to three days for them to send a report. Due to overcrowding in hospitals there is an increased threat of spreading the disease from one patient to another," Gamini Kumarasinghe, President of the union said.

He also noted the duty of the Minister Senaratne and the government is not to find faults with the media or trade unions, but to take internationally accepted basic measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

Unless they get their act together fast, this blame game will only end in the virus reaching epidemic levels like dengue, and it will be much more difficult to control as it is children and pregnant women are the ones who are highly vulnerable," he added.

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