Two weeks from its announcement, Singapore remains unscathed by the H1N1 virus, more commonly referred to as ‘Swine Flu’.
Despite flu alert levels, local and worldwide, screaming of an imminent pandemic, Singaporeans have responded with courage and seeming nonchalance towards the outbreak of H1N1.
Law student, Jenna Law, 20, felt that the responsive decision-making and transparent reporting on the swine flu helped to prevent a panic. She chalked up the steady response of Singaporeans to the steady stream of information from the news media, both local and overseas, as well as the internet.
However, a minority still rushed to stock up on essential supplies, some even buying three bags of rice, as well as facial masks to protect themselves. National Serviceman, Joshua Ng, 20, said, ‘I haven’t had any luck finding the surgical masks. No matter where I went, they were all sold out.’
Some Singaporeans were a few steps ahead. One interviewee described having a ‘pandemic freezer’ already stocked with enough frozen food to last her family for a month. This was in response to earlier fears about the more severe H5N1 outbreak.
Despite the run on essential items by a minority, the majority of Singaporeans regarded the news coolly. Agnes Png, finance manager of Rev Distribution, a distributor of frozen foodstuff, says, “Singaporeans are used to living in a post-SARS world, but the difference now is that we’re better prepared and can react faster. Also, sales of frozen food are up — due perhaps to the recession or H1N1, but it is more likely a combination of the two.”
The rapid upgrade of Singapore’s Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) from Green to Yellow and subsequently to Orange, was well-managed. Having come down with the flu myself, this reporter can attest to the efficiency and efficacy of polyclinic staff in implementing the new measures.
Joining the queue outside Ang Mo Kio Polyclinic, I was quickly attended to. I was made to fill out a form declaring my medical condition and travel history, and subsequently, my temperature was taken and I was in the building. All this happened in less than 10 minutes.
Depending on the temperature reading and response to the declaration form, patients were sorted into three categories and given different stickers to isolate patients with flulike symptoms.
By Friday, 8 May, posters were up, describing hygiene measures to minimize the spread of H1N1. Posters describing proper hand-washing technique also appeared in public toilets.
Influenza viruses, including H1N1, spread mainly person-to-person via the coughing or sneezing of infected people. To counter this, make hygiene an everyday habit: cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and properly dispose of the tissue, wash your hands regularly with soap and water (or alcohol-based sanitizers), avoid touching your face and stay at home if you are sick.
Singaporeans’ spirits were given a boost on Thursday, 7 May, when authorities announced a gradual step-down of DORSCON from Orange to Yellow over the next five days.
What’s the beef with swine flu?
The virus was termed as ‘swine flu’ because two of its four component strains are endemic to pigs. This term entered common usage with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alert on 21 April.
‘Swine flu suggests a problem with pork products’ leading to sales of pork plummeting worldwide. Egypt has taken advantage of the ambiguous naming to resolve the problem of ‘disorderly pig farming’, mainly by poorer Coptic Christians who live and work in Cairo’s shantytowns, by culling the entire pig population. This move has sparked protest from WHO officials and pig farmers alike, with the farmers turning violent in one incident.
In fact, calling it swine flu is more specific to this outbreak than the generic H1N1, which accounts for a large proportion of summer flu viruses. However, pig farmers and agricultural organizations around the world have protested, on grounds that it misled people. US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack pointed out in a press conference on 28 April that the virus is not food-borne, and stressed the importance of calling the virus H1N1 to protect the livelihoods of farmers who provide pork products.
|18 March||A surge of influenza cases is detected in Mexico City. Authorities put it down to “late season flu”.|
|28 March||A nine-year-old Californian girl contracts the flu. She recovers uneventfully.|
|30 March||Another Californian child, a ten-year-old boy, comes down with the flu.|
|17 April||Both Californian samples were sent to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, which confirmed that these were two cases of novel swine flu virus — so named because two of the four component strains are of porcine origin.|
|18 April||Some samples from the Mexico City Outbreak were sent to the CDC, which confirmed these to be cases of a new H1N1 strain.|
|21 April||The U.S. CDC alerts the public to the novel cases of swine flu.|
|27 April||The World Health Organisation Emergency committee meet for the second time. This time, they raise the pandemic alert level from Phase 3 (due to the H5N1 avian flu) to Phase 4.|
|29 April||The Emergency Committee meets for the third time, raising the alert to Phase 5, suggesting a pandemic is imminent. Due to the previous WHO announcement, Singapore raises its alert level (DORSCON) from Green to Yellow.|
|30 April||DORSCON Yellow is raised to Orange in light of the latest WHO pandemic alert.|
|6 May||Scientists at the Public Health Agency of Canada’s microbiology lab in Winnipeg sequence the H1N1 genome.|
|7 May||Singapore decides to progressively lower its flu alert level back to Yellow because the H1N1 virus, although infectious, was not severe enough to warrant a continued Orange alert.|
|11 May||DORSCON to be set at Yellow.|