Saturday, July 11, 2009

Flu-conscious Thais on high alert

Thai Takes
By Philip Golingai

Thailand’s A (H1N1) casualties are among the highest in Asia. Should Thais be worried?

The bad news is this week alone the number of deaths doubled to 14. In the last five days there were seven reported deaths from the new strain of influenza that claimed the life of its first Thai victim on June 20.

The good news is Thailand is at Level 2 on the World Health Organisation (WHO) alert level (0.1%-0.5% fatality rate of all confirmed cases). Thailand’s rate is at 0.4, or four deaths out of every 1,000 infected patients. As of yesterday, the number of infected cases totalled 2,924, of whom 2,815 have fully recovered.

“There are now 14 A (H1N1)-related deaths in Thailand, should Thais be worried?” I asked Dr Kumnuan Ungchusak, a senior expert in preventive medicine in Thailand’s public health ministry, on Thursday night.

“Yes, the number of deaths is increasing every day, but you have to compare this with how many people are infected with A (H1N1),” Dr Kumnuan explained. “The probability of dying from this new strain of influenza is not significant when compared with the seasonal flu (which has a 0.75%-1% fatality rate).”

Try telling that to Vichuta Prawittkarnh, a 33-year-old digital business development manager. She’s alarmed at the daily reporting of A (H1N1)-related deaths. “I think I have a chance of getting A (H1N1) as it is all around us. I hope if I get it, I will not die,” she said.

Vichuta’s fear is a reflection of the concern Thais – especially those living in the cities – have of this “frightening disease”.

There’s also good news/bad news to their concern over the flu outbreak, which WHO declared a pandemic on June 11.

The good news – Thais are more aware of A (H1N1) and are educating themselves on proactive prevention. For example, Vichuta’s mother would remind her to wash her hands after using public facilities.

The bad news, however, is that some Thais are too concerned.“Healthy people with mild symptoms will rush to hospital for treatment; they overload the health service,” noted Dr Kumnuan.

To counter A (H1N1), the Thai government has adopted two major measures – reduce the mortality rate and slow down the spread of the virus.

"Patients with underlying health issues (such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer) should seek medical treatment and receive the antiviral drug as soon as they develop flu-like symptoms or have a high fever," said Dr Kumnuan. "Doctors should not wait for lab results to confirm the infection first."

He added that the public health ministry found that of the first 11 Thais who died of A (H1N1) nine had underlying health issues.

On Thursday, the Thai Cabinet ordered private tuition schools across the country to close for 15 days starting on Monday in order to curb the spread of the flu virus.

"The ministry of public health found that these schools - which is usually crammed with students – as a major source for the spread of A(H1N1)," explained Dr Kumnuan, adding that the ministry also found that students were one of the most susceptible groups to the new strain of influenza.

The cabinet also asked owners of net cafes to cooperate with the government by closing their businesses during the same period so as to help curb the virus spreading.

Is the Thai government handling the A (H1N1) competently? No, according to the opposition Puea Thai Party. It has demanded that Public Health Minister Witthaya Kaewparadai resign because he “lacked experience and had failed to deal with the flu outbreak”.

However, according to Dr Samlee Plianbangchang, WHO director for South-East Asia, Thailand’s preventive measures against the spread of A (H1N1) is on the right track.

Dr Samlee, as reported by Thai News Agency, said it was not correct to say that “the spread of the influenza in Thailand was more severe than in other countries although the number of people who succumbed to the new virus strain is higher than in any other country in the region”.

“The number of fatalities vary, depending on the reporting system and how effectively measures are put into practice,” he explained.

“Should the system be efficient, the number of patients and victims might show up as being very high. Conversely, the number of new cases and fatalities is very small in some countries because they may not be monitoring their situation appropriately.”

Looks like Thais have little reason to worry about being misled on the flu statistics.

(Published in The Star on July 11, 2009)