Health Secretary makes statement on swine fever outbreak

April 27, 2009 at 7:41 pm Leave a comment

The Secretary of State for Health came to the Commons this afternoon to inform MPs of what action the government is taking after an outbreak of swine fever, known as the A(H1Nl) infection, in Mexico and the United States of America.

“The outbreak began in Mexico on 18 March, and as at 9 pm last night, there have been over 800 cases and 89 deaths in that country,” Alan Johnson told the House.

“However, to date, only 18 cases in Mexico have been confirmed as being caused by the H1N1 virus, and it is highly possible that other, more routine causes of infection are also currently circulating in that country.

“On Tuesday last week, under the terms of the international health regulations, the United States reported seven cases of the H1N1 infection.

“On Friday 24 April, the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that samples from Mexico contained the same virus as those in the United States.

“Twenty cases have now been confirmed in five different states of the USA, four have been confirmed in Canada and one in Spain.

“Suspected cases have also been reported from New Zealand, France and Israel, although it is important to note that these are suspected cases and have not yet been confirmed as the H1N1 infection.

“In the UK, 25 cases under investigation have been reported. Eight of these have proved to be negative, and three are currently undergoing further specialist tests. These three patients are in isolation wards in hospital, after recently travelling in Mexico.

“People who have been in close contact with them are currently being contacted. The remaining 14 suspected cases are undergoing initial investigation and the people involved are sufficiently well to be managed in the community.”

Mr Johnson said it was “too early to say” whether the cases in Mexico and the US will lead to a pandemic.

“A pandemic is declared when the World Health Organisation raises the pandemic alert to phase 6.

“That means that there is widespread person-to-person transmission of a virus in the general population. At the moment we are at phase 3.”

Mr Johnson said the UK has been preparing for a flu pandemic “for the past five years” and has established enough vaccines for more than 33 million people or half the population. He told MPs that he will convene a meeting of the Civil Contingencies Committee today.

“All NHS organisations have pandemic flu plans in place and the Department of Health is now working closely with the NHS to ensure that those plans can be put into action so that antivirals can be made available to the public very rapidly should we reach that stage.

“Should the virus start spreading widely in the UK, we propose to use our antiviral stockpile for treatment of symptomatic patients.

“We already have advance agreements in place with manufacturers, should a vaccine be developed, although it is important to note that it will be some time before scientists can develop a vaccine, as the virus is not yet sufficiently understood.

“Experts are currently examining whether vaccination with the regular, seasonal flu vaccine can in any way boost immunity to the H1N1 strain, and we are considering how best we can use the limited stocks that are currently available within the UK.”

He said that there was no need for people to start wearing face masks in public places in this country, as they are in Mexico.

“We are, however, urgently looking into how we can increase our stockpiles of face masks for health care workers who are treating sick patients.

“We have also established infection control guidance to support staff when treating or caring for people who have symptoms.”

Mr Johnson said he had three messages for the public – all cases outside Mexico the symptoms of this illness are mild and all patients have made a full recovery.

“Secondly, we can all take simple measures to prevent infection, in particular, covering one’s nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, and washing hands regularly. Anyone who develops flu-like symptoms should go home and contact their general practitioner.

“Thirdly, anyone who has recently travelled to the affected areas and is experiencing influenza-like illness should stay at home in order to limit contact with others and seek medical advice by phone from a local health professional or NHS Direct.”

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