By ROSALIND GRIFFITHS
Concern about a possible pandemic of swine flu has been mounting following the confirmation of two cases in Scotland, three in England and hundreds worldwide.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) influenza pandemic alert, which has six phases, was yesterday raised to five, the second highest. This means there is a new flu virus indicating human to human transmission in at least two countries, and the world has been told to prepare for a pandemic.
The Scottish couple affected had been in Mexico where nearly 200 people have died of the virus, and the infection is spreading from human to human in countries from the USA, which has 91 confirmed cases and one death, to New Zealand, where there are 13 confirmed cases. In Britain 78 cases are suspected.
This week Shetland’s director of public health Sarah Taylor said: “I would like to re-assure the public that there is currently no immediate threat of a flu outbreak in Shetland. However, if anyone is concerned about their own health, then please contact your GP or NHS 24 (08454 24 24 24) for advice.”
This also applies, she said, to anyone who has recently travelled to Mexico or the affected areas in the USA. If they experience an influenza like illness (fever, cough or runny nose, sore throat or body aches, headache, chills, fatigue and vomiting) within seven days of their return, they should stay at home to limit contact with others and immediately seek medical advice from their GP or NHS 24.
Dr Taylor said at present there is no immediate threat to public health in Scotland, but it is always good practice to follow respiratory and hand hygiene such as: ? Covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, using a tissue when possible.
- Disposing of dirty tissues promptly and carefully.
- Maintaining good basic hygiene, for example washing hands frequently with soap and water to reduce the spread of the virus from your hands to face or to other people.
- Cleaning hard surfaces (eg door handles) frequently using a normal cleaning product.
Dr Taylor said the cases diagnosed so far were unusual because swine flu rarely affects humans, and when it does it is usually due to contact with affected pigs. These cases are being actively investigated by the Centers for Disease Control in America, the World Health Organisation and other organisations. The Scottish Government and Health Protection Scotland are closely monitoring the situation and assessing the implications. This flu virus can be treated with the anti-viral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza.
Health experts say there is little evidence that masks prevent the spread of swine flu as they do not stop all particles getting through and become ineffective when moist. Their use has been reserved in the UK for medical staff.
A pandemic is one of the four major threats on the National Risk Register, the others being extreme weather, terrorism and utility failure (such as in fuel blockades).
In Shetland, response to an emergency is prepared for by the council’s Emergency and Resilience Planning Service, working in co-operation with other agencies. Emergency planning manager John Smith said plane crashes, pipeline bursts, ferry disruption, floods and landslides, which could cut off part of the islands if they occur in places where there is only one road, are all local possibilities.
A seminar of the emergency planning forum executive heard last week from head of resilience policy at the Civil Contingencies Unit at the Scottish Government Jane Askew said that anyone who delivers services should plan for “unknown unknowns”.
As a last resort military assistance can be called in. In his presentation, joint regional liaison Officer Lt Col John Kelly outlined the expertise the military could give to support the civil authorities, especially in the maintenance of essential services – water, electricity or in an emergency fire service or, as in the foot and mouth outbreak, disposing of animal carcasses.