As H1N1 spreads, Thais take cover behind surgical masks

BANGKOK, Jul 15 (IPS) - Pattadol Piboonsak was gripped with fear last week when he fell ill with a high fever, displaying the usual symptoms of influenza.

'I thought I had fallen ill with the new [H1N1] virus,' says the 27-year-old Bangkok resident. 'I was [worried].'

But he was fortunate. He was diagnosed with seasonal flu, and by the weekend he had fully recovered.

The fear of falling ill to the H1N1 virus has not left him though. 'I have started wearing a [surgical] mask whenever I go out to public areas,' says Pattadol. 'I am afraid I will get the H1N1 virus.'

Like him, a female employee at a post office, have sought the protection of a face mask against the risk. 'I have been wearing a [surgical] mask since May, when we heard about this new virus,' says 28-year-old Sunanta, who opted against giving a last name. 'I will continue to wear the mask when I go to work till this virus is gone.'

In recent weeks, such fears have gripped a large number of Thais as an increasing number of people succumb to the new H1N1 virus. With over 4,000 reported cases, the country remains the worst hit by the pandemic in Asia. Across much of Bangkok, people are following the same personal measures of precautions. There is a steady increase in the number of surgical masks worn by passengers traveling in the elevated commuter trains that snake across Bangkok.

This week, the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority shut down 435 public schools, 200 nurseries and 13 occupational training centres. These centres of learning will remain shut for five days.

The concern about the H1N1 pandemic spreading across this South-east Asian country of 65 million people is understandable. In mid-May, when Thailand hosted a meeting of the region’s health ministers to draft measures to deal with the new virus, there were no reported cases here. The only four cases in Asia at the time were in South Korea and Hong Kong, with three cases being reported in the former.

Currently, 24 people have died out of the over 4,000 confirmed cases of the type-A H1N1 virus, according to public health authorities.

That works out to a 0.4 percent fatality rate, or four deaths out of 1,000 infected patients, which places it at a manageable Level Two, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) calculations. Countries are expected to shut their borders if the virus hits Level Five.

China, the regional giant, by contrast, had reported over 2,000 cases by the first week of this month, Japan had reported 1,790 cases, Philippines reported 1,709 cases, and Singapore reported 1055 cases, up to that period, according to the WHO.

In order to deal with the virus spreading further in Thailand, public health experts are prescribing measures that seek to slow the spread of the virus, rather than trying to stop it infecting people.

'This is not the time to contain the virus. All the effort should go to mitigation,' says Dr. Somchai Peerapakorn, of the WHO’s Thailand country office. 'Now you cannot stop the virus. We have to slow down the spread by protecting the population.'

'This is a brand new virus. Nobody can say what will happen next,' he explained in an interview. 'Measures to deal with the virus should be proportional and rational according to each country’s situation.'

The profile of those infected by H1N1 provides pointers to help shape mitigation efforts. 'The picture of those infected here are pretty much the same as those infected internationally. They are children, young adults and working age people,' says Dr. Supamit Chunsuttiwat, a specialist in preventive medicine at Thailand’s public health ministry.

Yet what remains uncertain for now in a country that has impressive public health facilities when set against its poorer neighbours such as Burma, Cambodia and Laos is the exact number of H1N1 cases. 'The number of real cases may be much higher,' Dr. Supamit told IPS.

That stems from the country being among the most open in the region, welcoming a steady flow of tourists, a factor that has made Thailand more vulnerable to the virus than those with less airline passenger traffic.

'The spread of the virus is because of our exposure,' says Dr. Supamit. 'We welcome so many tourists. Smaller countries with less exposure to tourists are having a less impact.'

Thailand’s challenge to slow the spread of H1N1 comes at a time when the WHO confirmed on Monday that the new flu is 'unstoppable' and recommended that all countries seek 'access to vaccines.'

The new virus, which was reported to have begun in Mexico and spread through North America between March and April this year, has now infected close to 100,000 people across the globe, of which 429 patients have died.

The speed at which the virus has spread from one corner of the globe to Thailand, on the other side, points to a new reality.

'In 2009, because of globalisation and the huge amount of international travel, the virus is taking six weeks to spread,' says Dr. Somchai of the WHO. 'In previous pandemics, it took six months to spread.'