By Francis Kagolo
Experts want Government to introduce routine vaccination against influenza following revelations that the viral disease is increasing across the country.
Researchers at the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) have also discovered new strains of influenza in the country besides new influenza viruses seen in other parts of the world.
Influenza, or flu, is a respiratory illness that is caused by a virus. It is highly contagious usually spread by the coughs and sneezes of a person who is infected. It can result into pneumonia and death if untreated.
Dr. Julius J. Lutwama, the head of the National Influenza Center at UVRI, said between 20% and 24% of people tested at various health facilities across the country turn out to be positive.
Almost 80 percent of the infections occur in children especially those younger than two years and pregnant women because they have low immunity.
Other at-risk population include adults aged 65 and above and people of any age with chronic illnesses like heart, lung, kidney, and liver diseases and morbid obesity. Generally, men are more affected than women.
Between 30% and 40% of all severe acute respiratory infections which end up as pneumonia in Uganda are due to influenza, according to Lutwama.
He was speaking during a day-long national influenza symposium organised by UVRI at the imperial Royale hotel, Kampala Thursday.
Lutwama said a new virus, Influenza AH7N9, appeared this year in China where it killed over 100 people and “everybody fears that it will be the next pandemic”.
Explaining that the disease is easily transmitted across borders, UVRI biomedical scientist John Kayiwa warned that the situation may worsen if Government delays vaccination.
“We are seeing increasing cases of influenza yet we have Ugandans who travel abroad for business and religious purposes. These can easily bring in new viruses yet most Ugandans lack immunity against the disease.”
Kayiwa revealed that a new strain called Influenza B/Yamagata, which used to circulate only in Southeast Asia, is now common in Uganda.
“Recently we tested 10 samples from a school in Entebbe and eight of them had Influenza B/Yamagata,” he said.
Influenza viruses are important respiratory pathogens, and acute respiratory tract infections, such as pneumonia, are a major cause of death, particularly among children.
Influenza is part of the lower respiratory infections which are the third leading cause of death in the world, after heart diseases and stroke. The disease killed 3.2 million people globally in 2011, according the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Lutwama said Uganda, and Africa at large, has not developed interventions to reduce the impact of influenza, mainly due to lack of adequate information and awareness about the disease.
Only South Africa and Egypt have routine immunization against the disease.