Four months after the outbreak of swine flu, world health authorities are hesitating over what measures to take to try to contain the spread of the virus.
In April, Mexico became the first country to declare a maximum state of alert over the epidemic. For ten days, most public spaces and buildings stayed closed, and protection masks and disinfectant hand gel were distributed. The measures did not stop the virus from spreading. They have not been repeated by other governments which have not yet managed to agree on a common approach. “There is never enough coordination, everybody is doing their utmost, however the end result is that even after all this efforts European coordination is still lacking,” said Mark Van Ranst, a virologist and epidemiologist. “In terms of veterinary measures for other problems we see that coordination is a lot more easily reached than for human health issues”. As winter approaches in the southern hemisphere, governments in countries most affected such as Argentina have put hospitals at the forefront of the battle to diagnose and treat the illness. On the other hand, in Europe countries like France have decided to direct the sick towards general practitioners. From today no longer will the emergency services be charged with dealing with those who fall ill. All French doctors have received a kit to protect themselves and prevent the sick from infecting other people in waiting rooms. Protection masks and antiviral treatments are only available on prescription. “We have to be prepared and I think stockpilling antivirus was the right thing to do”, argues Mark Van Ranst. “However the best medication is the medication that you never give, this is medication, is not candy. And what we see is that currently some member states handout antivirus almost like candy.” The virologist warns that such indulgence risks depleting all national stocks, leaving countries badly exposed should the virus return in a more severe form. Despite 55,000 new cases of swine flu detected this week across the world, above all governments want to avoid spreading alarm. But the onward march of the virus could, come the autumn, bring more radical preventive measures, including closing public spaces and even introducing restrictions on cross-border movement.