Malaysia can’t af­ford to be com­pla­cent

Im­me­di­ate con­tain­ment must be car­ried out when H5N1 virus is de­tected

New Straits Times - - News -

AVIAN in­fluenza, or bird flu, the in­fluenza caused by virus adapted to birds, or the highly path­o­genic H5N1 strain, has been de­tected among chick­ens at a back­yard farm in a vil­lage in Ke­lan­tan, forc­ing farm­ers to cull their flocks on in­struc­tion from the Vet­eri­nary Ser­vices De­part­ment. Con­tain­ing the virus is ur­gent be­cause if al­lowed to mu­tate, it can cause se­vere acute res­pi­ra­tory syn­drome (SARS), a very dan­ger­ous dis­ease that spreads quickly. This is the great­est fear. The 2013 SARS out­break, which be­gan in Asia, for ex­am­ple, trav­elled swiftly world­wide, in­fect­ing more than 8,000 peo­ple, caus­ing 774 deaths. Hence, the de­ci­sion to quickly cull the chick­ens in the vil­lage. More than 1,000 poul­try birds have been culled within a 2km ra­dius of the af­fected ar­eas. With such a his­tory, nat­u­rally, the world keeps it­self alert to pos­si­ble out­breaks, as is the case cur­rently, which be­gan in Cam­bo­dia some weeks back. It is also im­por­tant to note that the bird flu it­self can cause death.

While a vac­cine ex­ists, the stock is not ex­pected to be ad­e­quate to pre­vent a mas­sive epi­demic. There­fore, gen­eral pre­ven­tion is im­por­tant. Ba­sic per­sonal hy­giene, like keep­ing hands clean af­ter con­tact with suf­fer­ers, is es­sen­tial be­cause once trans­ferred to hu­mans, in­fec­tion spreads through con­tact. Like all vi­ral in­fec­tions, there is no real treat­ment available. That is why pre­ven­tion is the only way to avoid in­fec­tion. Those in­fected must do their part by mak­ing sure not to sneeze or cough into others’ faces by cov­er­ing the mouth or turn­ing away. Bet­ter still, use a mask. When cook­ing poul­try, make sure that the meat is prop­erly cooked.

There were ear­lier in­ci­dents of the spread of the in­fec­tion in the coun­try. The H1N1 strain of the flu broke out in Au­gust 2009, caus­ing well over 2,000 cases, 78 of them fa­tal. It was im­ported from in­fected coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States and Aus­tralia. In 2004, the first H5N1— the strain found cur­rently — out­break in Malaysia oc­curred. Sig­nif­i­cantly, records show that con­tain­ment of the dif­fer­ent strains in Malaysia has been rel­a­tively ef­fec­tive. If the mea­sures now un­der­taken is any­thing to go by, it is no sur­prise. Mean­while, another strain, H7N9 — an un­usu­ally dan­ger­ous virus to hu­mans — was de­tected in Fe­bru­ary 2014, but ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WHO), there has not been sus­tained hu­man-to-hu­man spread.

His­tor­i­cally, WHO sta­tis­tics show that Malaysia has been com­par­a­tively safe, but as with the ob­ser­va­tion made of the H7N9 en­try into the coun­try, the ab­sence of cases is no rea­son for com­pla­cency. For in­stance, the H5N1 strain has been around since 1996 and, with few respites, it has been trav­el­ling the world, vis­it­ing some coun­tries more of­ten than others. Even with­out epi­demics, its toll on In­done­sia, say, from 2005 to 2012, was 184 cases re­ported, with fa­tal­i­ties. The in­fer­ence here is ob­vi­ous: once ar­rived, the virus seems ever present, lurk­ing in the back­ground wait­ing to at­tack. Given that pre­ven­tion is the only pro­tec­tion against in­fec­tion, Malaysians must main­tain a high level of hy­giene and visit the doc­tor when symp­toms ap­pear.

Like all vi­ral in­fec­tions, there is no real treat­ment available. That is why pre­ven­tion is the only way to avoid in­fec­tion.

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