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When pig flu strains fly

090427_02.jpg
090427_02.jpg

Health professionals say Cambodia needs to remain vigilant but that it is well-situated to deal with a swine flu pandemic

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CHRISTOPHER SHAY

A woman walks by a pig head in a market in Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri.

AFTER as many as 81 people died in Mexico from swine flu, the Cambodian government and health officials are on high alert but say the infrastructure laid down to prevent and contain bird flu puts the country in a good position to limit the effects of the disease should it reach Cambodia.

"From an epidemiological and biological point of view, it's not that scary," Dr Phillipe Buchy, chief of the virology unit at the Pasteur Institute, said, though he added the data on the disease at the moment was "very limited".

In the past, deadly flu pandemics have occurred as a result of hybrid flu viruses being reintroduced to humans from pigs, according to Buchy, pointing to the 1957 Asian flu that killed an estimated 2 million people worldwide.

If a pig becomes infected with both a human and avian strain of the flu, the genetic material can mix and then spread back to humans as a hybrid flu strain, Buchy said, but he added that there were no recorded instances of this hybrid flu in Cambodia.

Dr Lotfi Allal, the chief technical adviser for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, said Cambodia has had an active bird flu surveillance system since 2005, preparing it well for a potential swine flu pandemic.

He said Cambodia already has the equipment to do flu testing and has trained 8,000 village health workers in 184 districts.

"If something happens, we are prepared.... The surveillance chain is already ready. The lab is functional," Allal said.

Already in Cambodia, all suspect flu cases are tested, Buchy said.

Allal said he will ask the government on Monday to start testing pigs in the markets for swine flu just to be sure, saying that, though the virus is not a problem yet, "we have to continue to be vigilant".

Government officials said though they were "worried" and closely watching the spread of the disease in other countries, they did not want to circulate information about swine flu yet for fear of creating unnecessary panic.

"As the disease has not spread into Cambodia yet, we have not spread the news about the disease ... because we do not want to scare people, as this may affect the economy of Cambodia by dropping pig prices down," said the director of the Phnom Penh  Municipal Health Department, Veng Thai.

Though no swine flu cases have been reported in Cambodia or even in its neighbouring countries, Buchy said, "No one can predict it. There is always a risk."

Virulent strains of the flu can cross continents quickly. In New Zealand, 25 members of a school group were quarantined pending the results of medical tests after returning from Mexico with flu-like symptoms, AFP reported.

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