Health professionals from 11 countries are meeting in Addis Ababa to plot strategies to counter a possible outbreak of swine flu on the African continent. The strategies emphasize common sense preparedness and rapid response.
This U.S. government-sponsored conference on pandemics was planned long ago. But it has taken on new urgency, coming one day after the World Health Organization raised its global swine flu alert to Phase 4 on the six-point scale.
Conference organizer, Dr. Greg Pappas of the American non-governmental organization, or NGO, called Interaction says that while it is too early to tell whether the current outbreak will turn into a global pandemic, poorer countries in particular need to be prepared for the day when one does hit.
"It may not happen this year, it may happen next year, it may happen in five years. We don't know. The issue is, and that's what this meeting is about, is preparedness. Most of the developed world has gone through exercises to prepare their systems in the event of a pandemic. What's going on now is helping less developed countries like those in East Africa to come up to speed and be prepared for this sort of event," he said.
Seven East African countries - Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia - are represented at the gathering. Two nations in the Horn of Africa - Somalia and Eritrea - did not send representatives.
Also attending are delegations from the African Union, the United Nations emergency preparedness office, the World Health Organization and the Red Cross as well as representatives from Egypt, Mali, Jordan and Nepal.
Dr. Pappas with the NGO Interaction says he sees no reason why African countries should take drastic preventive action at this stage. He says the emphasis should be on common sense preventive measures that cost little, but could go a long way toward preventing the spread of viruses.
"I don't think there's a good reason to close schools in Ethiopia right now. There's every reason in every country to wash your hands. There's every good reason in every country in the world to promote education around sneeze etiquette, to suggest people stay home when they're sick, to not take their illness to school, to work. These basic principles are important," he said.
Dr. Pappas emphasizes that, while there is no cause for alarm, countries where health care infrastructure is weak are the most vulnerable. He notes that except for the death toll in Mexico, most of the swine flu cases reported since the current epidemic struck have been relatively mild.
World Health Organization officials say it could be months before a vaccine is available to treat this latest strain of flu. But experts say they are encouraged that the virus seems to be hitting hardest among people of middle age, sparing the more vulnerable groups - the elderly and children under the age of five.