This is turning out to be a bad year for public health scares. Bird flu in Cambodia has already claimed six lives, the most recent being a three-year-old girl who died this week. Now a mysterious respiratory disease similar to the Sars virus, which took nearly 800 lives in 30 countries a decade ago, has surfaced and killed five of the 11 people known to have caught it. Worse, it is feared to be capable of person-to-person transmission, although British health officials stress that such contagion would require prolonged exposure.
While the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus originated from palm civets in China, the source of this new disease appears to be bats and most infections have occurred in the Middle East. With the speed of modern air travel and the number of people always on the move, no country is immune from what once would have been a localised outbreak. Thai health officials need to be ready to cope with any eventuality, a reminder that is necessary after the bungling that characterised the handling of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009.
Politicians and health authorities initially played the outbreak down and then went into full panic mode as the death toll mounted. Yet despite all the money spent, our medical technicians were unable to produce a vaccine safely and in time for it to be of any use. Why they were unable to replicate the manufacture of the WHO-approved vaccine remains a mystery, given that other countries apparently had no problems. Had the flu virus mutated into an enhanced strain we could have been in serious trouble. In this instance, the ability of the medical authorities to counter emerging diseases was tested and found wanting. Proper contingency planning is vital to avoid any repeat of this debacle.
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