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Countries in East Africa Step Up Flu Screening

Countries in east Africa are screening travelers and have issued hygiene guidelines, after South Africa became the first country on the continent to report suspected cases of swine flu.

Governments in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda say they have dispatched medical teams to screen travelers at all entry points, including airports, seaports, and border crossings.

Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua, says visitors from countries reporting deaths or confirmed cases of swine flu are being scrutinized more than others.

"People coming from the United States, for example," said Mutua. "People coming from Mexico, people coming from Canada, coming from Spain, Israel, the United Kingdom."

The deadly flu strain is believed to have originated in Mexico, where it is suspected of killing nearly 170 people. The United States has one confirmed death and more than 90 confirmed cases. At least a dozen other countries, including New Zealand, Canada, Britain, and Spain, also have numerous confirmed cases.

Alarmed by rapid human-to-human transmission of the virus, the World Health Organization Wednesday raised the alert over swine flu to its second highest level. It also warned that a flu pandemic is imminent.

The head of Communicable Diseases Center at the Kenyan health ministry, Dr. Philip Muthoka, tells VOA that despite global concerns that poor surveillance and lack of resources could affect how countries in Africa deal with a swine flu outbreak, he says Kenyan and regional health authorities are prepared.

"All officers, they are ready and they are waiting for any case. We have some Tamiflu in the country," said Muthoka. "Basically, I think that is the kind of preparedness we need."

The anti-viral drug Tamiflu is not a vaccine against the swine flu virus. But it has been shown to be effective in treating flu symptoms and minimizing the virus' spread. Kenya has not said how much Tamiflu it has on hand. But Uganda says it has a stockpile of 10,000 doses.

Health officials in the region have also issued guidelines on how to protect against catching swine flu and to prevent transmission. They include urging citizens to wash hands frequently with soap and water and to cover noses and mouths when coughing or sneezing.

The increased vigilance and preparations come amid mounting concerns that the flu virus has reached the African continent. Two women in South Africa showed mild symptoms of swine flu shortly after returning from separate trips to Mexico. They are now being tested for the virus.

In recent days, health researchers in Africa have expressed concern that doctors may not be able to identify patients suffering from swine flu quickly enough to prevent its spread.

They note that millions of Africans suffer from illnesses, such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and malaria which present similar symptoms, and fear patients could be misdiagnosed.