The World Health Organization is watching a suspected swine flu case in Benin that would, if confirmed, be the first on the African continent. Four other possible cases have been reported on the Indian Ocean island of Seychelles. A pan-African conference in Addis Ababa on mother and child health has been overtaken by concern about a possible flu outbreak.
WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr. Luis Gomes Sambo says the continent is making preparations for the arrival of the influenza virus A-H1N1. He says medicines are being stockpiled in every African nation, disease surveillance procedures are being readied, and populations being informed about ways to avoid the disease.
"More than 50 percent of member states have activated plans and are ready to respond. In terms of surveillance, it is being done," said Gomes Sambo. "In terms of treatment, WHO dispatched already some doses. It is not much, it is about 1,000 doses of TamiFlu to all African countries and more will come. Capacity of immediate response is there."
Concern flu could hit region hard
Dr. Sambo says with the normal flu season just around the corner there is a concern swine flu could hit hard among Africans in certain vulnerable categories.
"If we have epidemic with this new influenza, it may compromise the already poor health condition of people," he said. "Those who are most vulnerable, those with immuno deficiencies, either by HIV/AIDS, or those in situation of malnutrition or sick people, so we must do our best to prevent and avoid that the continent is hit by the epidemic."
Swine flu scare overshadows regional health conference
The swine flu scare has overshadowed what had been an Africa-wide gathering to raise awareness about one of the continent's most serious public health challenges, the intolerably high rate of maternal and infant mortality. Conference participants were dismayed that questions at a news conference on maternal health were all about swine flu.
Dr. Sambo emphasized that flu is not a serious health problem in Africa in terms of mortality compared to AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
"The African region has other more important health problems," said Dr. Sambo. "This burden of HIV AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. These three disease are killing thousands of people every day. The current epidemic in terms of mortality, as you know ... the number of deaths is 26 worldwide, so I think it is quite clear that in terms of public health significance we have other much more important health programs, including maternal mortality."
Conference participants contrasted the comparatively low death rate from flu with statistics indicating African women are dying in childbirth at a rate of one per minute. For every 100,000 births in Africa, 1,000 of the mothers die.
African Union Social Affairs Commissioner Bience Gawanas summed up the feelings of many frustrated ministers and health professionals, saying "I cannot understand why maternal mortality rates are so intolerably high in Africa, while in developed countries it is not even an issue any more".