A former health minister yesterday sought to calm public fears over a possible outbreak of swine flu in the country, while calling for increased public awareness to prevent the virus from spreading.
Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) was the minister of the Department of Health during the SARS outbreak in 2003 and who later led the government's efforts to combat the bird flu as chairman of the inter-ministerial Avian and Pandemic Influenza Control Committee in 2005. He said there was no immediate risk of a swine flu outbreak in Taiwan.
With about 1,600 people in Mexico sick with the disease and more than 100 people dead, Chen said the mortality rate had reached as high as 7 percent, “which is a shocking fact.”
Public awareness about the disease has to be raised, Chen said, but “people should not panic” because several factors could either stall or control the spread of swine flu in Taiwan.
“Whether a potential global epidemic can be prevented is largely determined by whether the original site of the outbreak is able to take action to prevent [the virus from spreading],” Chen said.
The Mexican government has ordered schools, churches and many restaurants close in the capital to contain the spread of the virus.
“As we can see, Mexico City is almost emptied, meaning it is taking sufficiently aggressive actions to prevent the flu from spreading further,” Chen said.
If Mexico City controls the situation well, the likelihood of swine flu becoming a global threat will be small, Chen said.
“In the initial phase of the spread of a life-threatening disease, people are bound to panic,” Chen said. “Some of the suspected cases will be reported, but some of these cases may turn out to be false alarms.”
Even if a person comes in contact with the virus, there are ways to stop the disease from spreading — such as the drug Tamiflu — or quarantine, Chen said.
Since the bird flu first hit the country, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has had numerous preventive drills to fight global influenza epidemics, Chen said.
“We are happy to see that the CDC now has a well-developed system to prevent a large spread. After the SARS epidemic in 2003, the center's prevention strategies have become even more mature,” Chen said. “The WHO recently recognized this achievement and said that Asia was more equipped with the right techniques to circumvent global epidemics than the rest of the world.”
Chen said that the arrival of summer would make it harder for the virus to spread, adding that Taiwan is far from the source of the outbreak.
If the swine flu were to spread in Taiwan, it would likely be in November, when the country is traditionally hit by flu viruses, Chen said.
“However, with daily plane travel across the world now, anything can happen and it is hard to say for sure when the swine flu may or will hit Taiwan,” he said.
Asked if the country's stock of flu medicine — including 2 million doses of Tamiflu — was enough, Chen said that a stock that covers 10 percent of the national population would be enough.
“Aside from assessing our capability to develop and manufacture our own swine flu vaccines, it is also important to keep an eye on whether we can import any vaccines developed abroad,” he said.
Chen called on people returning to the country from swine flu infected regions to voluntarily report their health condition to the CDC. If flu is suspected, the traveler should inform the center immediately, he said.