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Swine flu mystery; is it exaggerated or genuine scare?

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Joan Katushabe, a Senior Four student at Ishaka Vocational Secondary School in Bushenyi district, is scared of the AH1N1 virus (swine flu) that attacked Kitabi Seminary which is about 20km from her school. She says the press reports and strict guidelines the school authorities have issued increased her worries about the disease, which was first detected in Mexico early this year. I dont know if we will survive this flu. Our parents are not allowed to visit us and we cannot even go home when we fall sick, Katushabe says, adding: I wonder if we will be allowed to go home at the end of the term if swine flu is not controlled.

Fear of the fast spreading swine flu that has hit Ugandan schools has struck countrywide. The ministries of health and education have put the country and schools on a swine flu alert. They have banned visitations to schools and interschool extracurricular activities such as sports, music and dance galas.  Since September more than 400 suspected swine flu cases have been recorded in schools where 38 have been confirmed. Kitabi Seminary in Bushenyi was the first school to record swine flu cases before other schools like Nyakasura, Ndejje and Early Learning Centre in Entebbe followed. But no swine flu related-death has occurred so far.  It is still unclear where the students contracted the virus. Officials at the ministry of health say investigations are ongoing.

Some officials in the ministry of health are already skeptical about the effectiveness of the swine flu guidelines offered to schools since most boarding schools are congested. To be safe, the ministry recommends that people should be separated by a space of at least one metre. The congestion in most schools makes students more vulnerable. Supplies to schools might also become hard as people who go there may carry the virus with them or fear contracting the virus.

There appears to be confusion about the spread of the disease. Some teachers  say the guidelines can’t work. They argue that banning visitations to schools is like treating symptoms other than the cause and source of the disease. Teachers in day schools say it will be more difficult to control the disease.

The AH1N1 swine flu virus that broke out in April in Mexico, Canada and USA is presently ravaging Uganda with a record of 75 confirmed cases of which 38 are from schools and 37 from the general public.

In June, WHO raised the swine flu pandemic alert level from three to four. The move from Level 3 to Level 4 on the WHO’s 6-level threat scale means the world health body considers the virus capable of significant human-to-human transmission which is a major step toward a flu pandemic according to Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director-general.

At the time of the outbreak in April many people were scared and would wear masks as a protective gear against the virus. But today most people seem unbothered and it is only the medical personnel treating suspected swine flu cases who wear the masks. So is the swine flu scare due to media hype? Some people believe the media especially the western media paid too much attention to the disease thereby scaring the public yet the swine influenza is like any ordinary flu but simply taking advantage of the body’s already weak immune system.

The swine flu scare spread so widely that the Egyptian government ordered for the slaughter of about 300,000 pigs although some have said it was a miscalculation. But by October 2, over 900 cases of swine flu and two deaths had been confirmed in the country since the AH1N1 virus struck Egypt. The influenza was linked to the strain of flu that affects pigs. That’s how it earned the name swine flu. The AH1N1 virus is spreading from person-to-person worldwide, most likely in much the same way that regular seasonal influenza viruses spread.

But what is the level of preparedness? It is only the Uganda Virus Institute Entebbe that carries out swine flu tests in the whole country. Although the long distance to affected upcountry areas is an impediment, the institute can carry out tests and within six hours the medics can tell whether the suspected case has tested positive or negative to swine flu. On the other hand the medical personnel who handled earlier cases at Entebbe complained of non-payment and threatened a strike and the government closed the swine flu emergency desk at the airport, probably thinking the epidemic was over.

The ministry of health has now asked for Shs 19 billion to handle the swine flu epidemic. In upcountry areas the ministry relies on tests done in the mobile laboratories.

Health Minister Stephen Mallinga said that there is no need for alarm. “There is no need for us to have a team at the border points trying to keep the swine flu out. We must concentrate our efforts on following up the cases within the country and to try and prevent the spread of the disease within the country,” he said.

Rev. Fr. Dido Nsekanimanya, Kitabi Seminary Rector, said the infected students were recovering quickly. “When you see these students, you would not know that they have tested positive to the flu,” Nsekanimanya said. He thinks the infected students might have contracted the flu while they were still on holiday since so many students caught flu upon reporting back at school. He suspected this was not the ordinary flu and alerted health officials who came and carried tests on the students.  “That’s how we got these cases that turned out to be positive,” he explains.

To prevent the spread of swine flu, it is recommended that tissues and other disposable items used by an infected person be thrown in a trash. Additionally, persons should wash their hands with soap and water after touching used tissues and similar waste.

In spite of the swine flu scare, Katushabe is determined to read hard for her national exams which begin mid this month.

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