Proof that nowhere is immune from the current swine flu epidemic came with the announcement that Northern Ireland has its first confirmed case, with another possible case being investigated.
The relatively late arrival of the infection to the province meant that health authorities have had vital time to prepare and gear up their contingency plans. Already enough anti-viral drugs are available to half the population, with stocks being built up to cover 80%.
Credit is due to the health authorities and Health Minister Michael McGimpsey for the assured way they have prepared for possible widespread infection. And now that the first case has been confirmed everyone should heed the advice not to panic. Outside of Mexico, where the epidemic began, and the United States the strain of flu appears to be relatively mild and easily treated.
The simple advice on good hygiene which has been issued constantly since the alert began, is still the best protection against contracting the flu.
Those who were on a flight from London with the person confirmed to have flu are being contacted by public health officials. They should seek an examination from their GP if they display any of the flu-like symptoms and avoid contact with other people as much as possible. Having a check-up is essential both for their own health and to prevent them possibly infecting other people. Already 25 people who have been in contact with the infected person have been given medical checks.
The disease has now been confirmed in 33 countries, amounting to 6,500 cases, far from the pandemic predicted. However, it would be foolish to be complacent as some health experts think that this strain of flu could return in a stronger form in the autumn or winter when outbreaks are most common. It should be noted that ordinary winter flues cause several thousand deaths in the UK each year, usually among vulnerable people like the elderly or those whose immune systems are impaired. A more virulent strain of flu could send the death toll considerably higher so it is in everyone’s interest to contain the present epidemic and to continue the search for an effective protective vaccine.
While the state of alert remains high people should take sensible precautions to protect themselves against swine flu. The most obvious is to cancel any planned travel to Mexico and also consider carefully before travelling to the US or other countries with a high incidence of the disease. Any suspicious symptoms should be investigated immediately. The health authorities are geared to deal with public concerns.
What the outbreak has demonstrated is that the world really is a global village. The ease and frequency of inter-continental travel means that infection can literally wing its way around the globe in a very short period of time.
The critical point is how the health authorities in each individual country react to the epidemic.
It does seem that many countries are quickly getting up to speed on the diagnosis and treatment of confirmed cases. In that respect Northern Ireland can regard itself as one of the best prepared.
For that, at least, we should be grateful.