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Health ministry 'alert' for spate of diseases - Swine flu was 'dry run' for other outbreaks

Published:Wednesday | February 3, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Nadisha Hunter, Gleaner Writer

While there is an ominous forecast of the possible emergence of a number of new diseases, the Ministry of Health says it is on the alert to reduce the likelihood of cross-island transmission.

Last week, Jamaica representative of the Pan American Health Organisation, Dr Ernest Pate, painted a worrying picture of a potential wave of diseases, saying the increase was already noticeable with an average of two new zoonotic diseases every three years for the last two decades.

He was addressing journalists at an influenza workshop for Caribbean journalists at the United States Embassy.

However, Chief Medical Officer Dr Sheila Campbell-Forrester said the ministry was on the watch.

"We look at the emerging diseases on the horizon by linking on the World Health Organisation website where countries would report new diseases affecting them. We continue to monitor it to see what we are at risk for," she said in an interview Monday.

Subsequent to the recent outbreak of the H1N1 virus, better known as swine flu, the health ministry scaled up surveillance activities at health-care facilities and ports of entry.

'Very effective' system

Campbell-Forrester said while the system was not 100 per cent successful, it was very effective.

One drawback of the system is that it takes more than 24 hours before the symptoms of any disease become noticeable, and the chief medical officer said some persons will not report any signs of illnesses when they are at a mild stage.

Given the warnings of emerging diseases, Campbell-Forrester pledged that the ministry was working hard to improve the system to make it fully functional.

Alluding to the outbreak of avian flu (bird flu) in some countries, she said the recent experience with the H1N1 virus provided a useful strategic framework from which to tackle the eventuality of a bird flu outbreak.

"Before the H1N1 virus, we were planning for bird flu, and so the H1N1 was a dry run of the plan. If bird flu should affect us, we would immediately activate that plan," Campbell-Forrester said.

In the meantime, the Ministry of Health continues to urge the public to take precautionary measures to prevent any further spread of swine flu, which has claimed seven lives locally.

These precautions include washing hands frequently with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.