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M’sia pushing WHO to adopt exit screening

PUTRAJAYA, 15 May 2009: Malaysia is pushing for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to adopt a requirement for affected countries to implement exit screening to stop the spread of the new Influenza A disease, following concerns that a second wave of the H1N1 disease can be more deadly.

Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said currently WHO did not make exit screening mandatory to contain the spread of the disease and this had created tremendous pressure on other countries that were not affected by the outbreak to remain so.

WHO is not recommending travel restrictions following the outbreak, but has advised individuals who are ill to delay their travel plans and returning travellers who fall ill, to seek appropriate medical care.

The issue of exit screening was first brought up during the Asean Plus Three Health Ministers Meeting in Bangkok last week, but some countries were against making it mandatory as it would have an impact on travel and trade, especially at a time when many countries are facing an economic downturn, with huge costs involved.

“If we can have travellers from affected countries screened before they are allowed to travel out, this will help us to contain the spread of such virus to other places,” he told Bernama here before leaving for the 62nd WHO General Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland.

The general assembly, scheduled for 18-22 May, will discuss a number of public health issues, including pandemic influenza preparedness, sharing of information on the influenza virus and access to vaccines and other benefits.

Liow said Malaysia and some other countries would push for WHO to adopt exit screening as a compulsory measure in the case of any outbreak in any country.

“We are pushing for this during the WHO general assembly in Geneva this weekend. Even at the Asean Plus Three Health Ministers Meeting in Bangkok (last week), not all countries agreed to it. But we hope WHO will pay attention to this,” he said.

Apart from that, Liow said Malaysia would get the latest information on the H1N1 virus from WHO, as well as on the development of new vaccines while looking into stockpiling more anti-viral drugs for the country.

“We would like to bring to WHO’s attention on the need for equal distribution of anti-viral drugs as well as other stockpiles as we are worried about the second wave of attack,” he said.

Experts have said that the Influenza A(H1NI) outbreak is similar to the 1918 influenza pandemic as the viruses are similar and mutated.

The 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed tens of millions of people, began mild and returned within six months in a much more lethal form.

“We’ve got to be prepared for this second, or even possible third wave while the government has decided to take all the precautionary measures as a long-term or permanent solution to the influenza outbreak although it has not hit us yet,” Liow said.

WHO said the new H1N1 flu virus could still mutate into a more virulent form and spark an influenza pandemic that could be expected to circle the globe up to three times.

The world health body has warned that the impact of any pandemic would vary, as a virus that causes only mild illness in countries with a strong healthcare system can become “devastating” in those with a weak healthcare system, shortage of drugs and poorly equipped hospitals.

According to WHO, the H1N1 viral infection, commonly referred to as swine flu, “appears to be more contagious than seasonal influenza and nearly the world’s whole population lacks immunity to the new disease”.

So far, the virus shows no signs of sustained person-to-person spread outside North America.

Some 6,497 people have been infected in 33 countries, according to WHO’s tally today with the hardest hit being Mexico with 60 deaths so far.

In PENANG, a man from Bukit Mertajam held under observation at the isolation ward of the Penang Hospital has been declared free of Influenza A (H1N1).

A test on a sample of his blood sent to Kuala Lumpur turned up negative, said State Health, Welfare, Caring Society and Environment Committee chairperson Phee Boon Poh.

“We just got a report that the blood test on the 26-year-old man was negative,” he said when contacted by Bernama today.

The man was kept for observation yesterday after he was found to have fever and symptoms similar to those of Influenza A (H1N1) upon his return from the United States.

Two weeks ago, a New Zealand tourist was admitted to the isolation ward of the hospital for suspected Influenza A (H1N1) but a blood test also showed up negative. — Bernama

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