11 March 2005
South Africa’s Department of Health will hold discussions next week on ways of dealing with the possibility of an outbreak of a new, deadly strain of influenza.
This follows a warning from the World Health Organisation that the H5N1 strain of the avian flu virus affecting some parts of the world may have the capacity to mutate and jump the species barrier, resulting in a disease with a high mortality rate among humans.
Avian influenza, or “bird flu”, is caused by viruses that infect birds and, less commonly, pigs.
The meeting, that will include representatives from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, will also review the implementation of the country’s flu epidemic prevention and management plan.
The department said that a number of measures had already been put in place to enable the country to respond adequately to any flu outbreak.
“We are working in tandem with the World Health Organisation and other countries in anticipation of a new cycle of the influenza”, the department said in a statement.
The first priority, according to the WHO, is to reduce opportunities for human exposure to the largest reservoir of the H5N1 strain of the avian flu virus.
This can be achieved through rapid detection of outbreaks among poultry, along with emergency control measures such as the destruction of all infected or exposed poultry stock and the proper disposal of carcasses.
To date, no case of bird flu caused by the H5N1 strain has been reported in South Africa. The recent strain H5N2, detected in August 2004 at ostrich farms in the Eastern Cape, has since been successfully contained.
“Despite the fact that there is no immediate danger to South Africa, health authorities have intensified their detection control measures”, said department spokesperson Sibani Mngadi.
Mngadi said these included strengthening screening services at the country’s major points of entry, with particular emphasis on freight from high-risk areas such as Asia.
The department was working closely with the Department of Agriculture to monitor developments, Mngadi said.