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H7N9 virus: Should SA be worried?

STRICT Control: Officials from the Centre for Food Safety get a blood sample from a chicken imported from mainland China at a border checkpoint in Hong Kong earlier this month.

STRICT Control: Officials from the Centre for Food Safety get a blood sample from a chicken imported from mainland China at a border checkpoint in Hong Kong earlier this month.

Published Apr 29, 2013


Johannesburg - It has been described as one of the world’s most lethal flu viruses.

More than 20 people have already died from it in China, and more than 100 are infected.

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The new strain of bird flu, the H7N9, has caused such a stir in the medical field that local practitioners are on a drive to educate South Africans on the importance of getting flu vaccines.

“This strain is actually nothing new, but the virus is changing itself… it’s becoming bigger and it is absolutely critical that everyone be vaccinated. It doesn’t appear that any South Africans have contracted or are in danger of the virus. but flu spreads quickly, and while we don’t want to scare people, there needs to be awareness,” said Professor Lynne Webber, head of the medical virology department at the University of Pretoria.

Scientists in China have reported that the likely source of the new strain is in poultry sold in markets. The symptoms are a fever, a cough and shortness of breath, which could lead to severe pneumonia.

According to a risk assessment conducted by the World Health Organisation this month, the epidemiology of this virus so far is associated with infection among “as yet undetermined animals” and that further human cases of infection should be expected.

The organisation states that there is no information as yet to indicate international spreading of this virus, but it is possible that an infected person, who may have symptoms, could travel to another country. However, “If the virus cannot sustain human-to-human transmission, as appears to be the current situation, then extensive community spread is unlikely,” according to the WHO.

Graham Anderson, the principal officer at Profmed, said that based on the experience of the US and Europe this winter, South Africans had to prepare themselves for a challenging few months in terms of influenza viruses this winter.

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Both Webber and Anderson were quick to dispel the myths associated with vaccinations, stating that flu vaccines were completely safe and the commonly held belief that one gets ill from the vaccine was untrue.

Anderson noted: “It is possible that with a flu vaccine, you may still come down with a cold during winter.

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“However, the key difference is that people who have been vaccinated will not experience the severe and potentially life-threatening symptoms of the virus. This is especially true in the case of children and people with compromised immune systems.”

Webber said practitioners normally advised that people get vaccinated in mid-April, but stressed it was never too late to get vaccinated.

“We need to be very firm in our stance. Vaccines are safe and cheap – it costs less than R100 to get vaccinated at a clinic or a pharmacy.”

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Facts about vaccines:

l They prevent very serious diseases.

l They usually have very mild side effects, if any.

l They prevent long-term consequences of disease, for example disability from polio.

l They prevent complications of infectious diseases, such as pneumonia. - The Star

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