THE world is grappling with swine (pig) flu, a new deadly strain of the virus that is suspected to have killed over 160 people in Mexico. By press time, 12 deaths were confirmed as resulting from the flu and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that it can no longer be contained.
The global health body said recently that community transmission had been noted in the US and Mexico. WHO has since raised the pandemic threat alert to Phase Five out of a possible six, with nearly 2,000 people infected.
Phase Five means human-to-human spread of the virus in at least two countries in one WHO region, a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent.
WHO defines a pandemic as when the flu spreads over a wide area and affects a large proportion of the population.
Nonetheless, the WHO said the virus had spread so far that containment was â€œnot a feasible operationâ€. The body instead advises that international response should be to try to limit transmission of the virus and treat those infected.
Despite the fact that there is no reported case in Africa, health professionals say it is important for the public to know how to protect themselves.
What is swine flu?
The commissioner for livestock health and entomology in the agriculture ministry, Dr. Nicholas Kauta, says swine flu is a respiratory disease caused by influenza type A, which infects pigs.
â€œThere are several strains of type A but the one which has caused the outbreak is H1N1,â€ he says.
â€œUntil now, it had not infected humans, but the latest type can be spread from one person to another, probably through coughing and sneezing,â€ says Dr. Paul Khauka, the director of tropical diseases at World Relief Services International.
Signs and symptoms
According to the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC), in humans the symptoms of swine flu are similar to those of influenza and of influenza-like illness in general.
They include fever, cough, sore throat, lack of appetite and a runny nose. Others are nausea, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue.
Kauta stresses that the incubation period for swine influenza is normally 48 hours for animals and is similar in humans.
â€œIt is hard to confirm whether you have the virus unless you have visited a health facility and have been diagnosed. That explains why many people may have died in Mexico,â€ he adds.
Khauka, however, says the 2009 outbreak has shown an increased percentage of patients with diarrhoea and vomiting.
â€œBecause these symptoms are not specific to swine flu, a different diagnosis of probable swine flu requires not only symptoms but also a high likelihood of swine flu due to the personâ€™s recent history,â€ he says.
CDC advises that a diagnosis of confirmed swine flu requires laboratory testing of a respiratory sample from the nose or mouth.
Who is at risk?
People who work with pigs are at risk if the animals carry a strain that can infect humans.
â€œHowever, these strains are rarely able to pass from human to human unless mutation takes place. The H1N1 strain is reported to have undergone such a mutation to be able to infect humans,â€ officials say.
On the origins of the outbreak, Kauta says it is believed a woman who went to watch a pig race may have got infected with the swine flu virus and thus started it. â€œBut this is not conclusive, experts are still investigating.â€
Experts say swine flu is spread between humans through coughing and sneezing by infected people and touching something with the virus on it and then touching their nose or mouth.
â€œIt cannot be spread by pork products, since the virus is not transmitted through food.â€
Swine flu in humans is most contagious during the first five days of the illness although some people, mostly children, remain contagious for up to 10 days.
Officials says pig infected by swine flu immediately develop immunity and recover after six months or less. â€œIf the animal does not recover after this period, it will die.â€ People who get infected with the virus develop immunity for about six months and later fall sick.
Health experts say flu cases outside Mexico appear to have been mild and experts are investigating why it caused deaths in Mexico.
It is thought it may be due to a strain mixing with an unrelated virus circulating in the community.
The director general of health services in the health ministry, Dr. Sam Zaramba recently issued a statement advising people who experience fever, cough and fatigue or chills to report to the nearest health centre.
â€œUganda has enough antiâ€“viral drugs; Tamiflu and Relenza to treat the virus,â€ Zaramba says, adding that it is advisable to wash your hands regularly and cover your mouth with a handkerchief when you cough.
According to Khauka, prevention measures include frequent washing of hands with soap and water or with alcohol-based hand sanitisers. Social distancing is also important.
This means staying away from other people who might be infected by avoiding large gatherings or staying home.
He says people should avoid contact with pigs and those infected should be quarantined.
What to do
If your symptoms become serious, go to the nearest health centre.
Swine Flu- How to keep the bug at bay