Friday, August 21, 2009

H1N1 flu pandemic

People’s cooperation vital

The ongoing Influenza A,H1N1 pandemic is a classic example that illustrates the complacency of Malaysians in general. It is the familiar tidak apa attitude of Malaysians towards what is happening within and outside the country. This attitude which is the feeling of calm satisfaction with our own abilities that prevents us from trying harder to achieve the unimaginable has become a major drawback and the cause of many of our problems today. When a tragedy, like the current flu pandemic strikes us, our tidak apa attitude takes us through an initial period of denial followed by overconfidence and finally irrational reaction that will lead to the unmitigated repercussions of the crisis.

Almost six thousand people have been infected with the H1N1 virus, some in serious condition, and 68 died so far. This is definitely an alarming situation that should a cause to worry. Unfortunately we are still complacent and going about our business as though nothing is happening.

To control the outbreak in Mexico in April this year, the government there closed down most of Mexico City’s public and private offices and facilities to help contain the spread. Those who got the flu were advised to stay home from school or work and avoid crowds to avoid spreading the infection further. Their stringent measures and the people’s cooperation did help to check the spread of the virus within a short time and returning to normalcy.

When the Mexicans were attacked, we did not pay much attention as we were very confident that we will not be affected as we are far away from that source. When it spread to the US were still not bothered to seriously put in place screening procedures and restricting travel to endemic areas. We were confident the virus will be stopped by half-hearted attempts that we deployed. We failed to realise the virus is airborne and travels rapidly due to the facilitated global transportation we have today.

Now we have the virus on our shores and it seems to spreading faster than expected. It has taken 68 lives to date which is indeed a cause for alarm. The Health Ministry may be spending millions to fight the pandemic but there seems to be lot of confusion on how to best handle the crisis. There is gross under-reporting and attempts to suppress the truth to calm the people who do not seem to appreciate the actual situation and risks.

Without the active cooperation of the public all attempts to control the disease are bound to fail. They must be duly informed of the true facts of the disease and the actual situation on the ground as only a well informed public will cooperate fully to overcome the crisis. How can you expect cooperation of the people when they are ignorant of what is really going on? It would only cause unnecessary alarm and panic.

Use of masks and indiscriminate taking of antiviral agents like Tamiflu are not going to significantly stop the spread of the virus. The most important step is self-imposed quarantine. Those infected must be quarantined and all those with influenza-like illness (ILI) must stay away from the public. In general during a crisis like this everyone, including those healthy, as far as possible must stay away from the public functions and crowded places.

It is disheartening to see the people are going around as usual oblivious of a deadly flu epidemic. We see supermarkets, theatres, eateries and recreational parks still crowded with people and children, many among them wearing masks. What is their urgency for visiting such places at this time of an influenza outbreak I wonder? Even hospitals are packed with visitors, including healthy children, who are strongly advised against such visits. Donning a face mask but continuing with the usual high risk activities is not going to help stop the spread of the infection.

It is time for the government to take bold steps, like in Mexico, to stop the spread of the disease. Shutting down all non-emergency activities is the only option we have now. It may affect the economy in the short term but if we do not take that risk now we may be in for a bigger economic and human disaster as a result of full blown uncontrolled pandemic.

Dr.Chris Anthony

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