While governments fret over antiviral drugs and elaborate plans to ward off a looming flu pandemic, an expert said on Monday that the best prevention is simple: wash your hands and cover your mouth when you sneeze.
“It’s very glamorous to talk about (antiviral drug) Tamiflu and vaccines, but actually, wash your hands, cover your mouth when you sneeze, then wash your hands,” Sian Griffiths, director of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health at the Chinese University, told Reuters in an interview.
“It is really basic, it’s a bug that spreads like any other bug,” she said. Griffiths was part of an international committee of experts which examined what went wrong in Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic in 2003, which killed early 300 people here and 800 worldwide.
A lethal strain of the bird flu virus, H5N1, has killed 67 of the 130 people it is known to have infected in Asia since 2003 -- mainly in Vietnam and Thailand. Most of the victims contracted the virus directly from handling infected chickens, but it has not shown that it can spread easily among people.
Scientists fear, however, that it might mutate into a form that can do so and spark a global pandemic, killing millions.
Around the world now, governments are scrambling to get their hands on Tamiflu, a drug believed to be capable of reducing the symptoms and chances of complications caused by the virus.
Griffiths, however, stressed that while H5N1 is thought of as being the likeliest culprit that will present the world with its next influenza pandemic, that may not be the case.
Back to basics
“We don’t know that the flu pandemic will be spread from avian flu, from H5N1, we are postulating it, we don’t know it,” Griffiths said.
“Therefore it’s basic principles, it’s prevention. It has to start in the agriculture community because we know that it’s animal-man spread that is the cause of the new viruses.”
“That happened with SARS, with historical flu viruses. So how do we stop man-transfer? It’s agricultural practice, animal rearing, then there is personal hygiene and behaviour.”
Griffiths, who has had a long career in public health in Britain, said Hong Kong was prepared for the outbreak of a influenza pandemic because of its experience with SARS and high level of public awareness. It was also in Hong Kong that the H5N1 made its first known jump to humans in 1997, when it infected 18 people and killed 6 of them.
The government has hammered out elaborate contingency plans and has been conducting hospital drills to test their readiness and coordination among different government departments.
Local newspapers are packed with articles on this health issue and wary companies and residents have emptied pharmacy shelves of Tamiflu.
Griffiths, however, said it was important to focus on those living on the margins of society, who were the most vulnerable to disease.
“Like SARS, the people most at risk are the older people, the immuno-compromised, people already with problems ... will the GPs know what to do and can we get healthcare to all who need it?”