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Oral - Swine Influenza

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Edwina Hart ,Minister for Health and Social Services

I want to update Members on the reports of human cases of swine flu in Mexico, in other parts of the world, and the state of preparedness in Wales. Members will be aware that the World Health Organization declared that we had moved from its pandemic flu alert level phase 3 to phase 4 on the evening of 27 April. That means that there is evidence of increased human-to-human transmission, but it is not at phase 6, which is when pandemic flu is declared. It is too early to say that a global pandemic is inevitable.

 

The outbreak started in Mexico in mid March. The number of deaths likely to have been caused by swine flu has risen to more than 150. Six other countries have officially reported cases of swine influenza, A(H1N1) infection, with one death of a 23-month-old child in the USA reported today. Outside Mexico, we are seeing small numbers of cases among people who have been linked with visits to Mexico. The United States Government has reported 64 laboratory confirmed human cases. Canada has reported 13. There are 14 in New Zealand, two in Israel, two in Spain, and one in Costa Rica. In many of those cases, those infected are reported as having a mild illness.

 

Two cases were confirmed in Scotland on 26 April and, at 1pm today, three cases were confirmed in England, with another 76 patients in the UK currently being tested for the virus. The situation is fluid and there are cases under investigation across the UK. We expect more cases to be confirmed in travellers recently returned from Mexico. In Wales, we are investigating 20 people, but there have been no confirmed cases yet.

 

I am working closely with ministerial colleagues in the other home countries through the formal COBRA system. This includes regular ministerial discussions, supported by officials in a variety of working groups at a UK level.

 

Senior representatives of Welsh Assembly Government departments have been meeting daily with key partners to consider response arrangements. The chief constables in Wales, as chairs of our four local resilience fora, were briefed over the weekend on the developing situation, and they met at the Welsh Assembly Government on Monday where they were briefed by the emergency services civil contingencies adviser. Multi-agency strategic co-ordinating group meetings have been arranged this week to prepare local response arrangements. An extraordinary meeting of the Wales resilience forum will also be held tomorrow afternoon. These meetings are precautionary and prudent measures to ensure that arrangements are in place to fully activate the multi-agency plans that have been developed should they be required.

 

We held a successful exercise last week to test our pandemic flu plans at all levels across Wales, to ensure that they were robust and that we could put measures in place swiftly to manage any potential outbreak. That exercise was not in response to the current situation but part of a programme of exercises co-ordinated by the Cabinet Office, which had been planned over the past nine months. The plans that were tested are the culmination of a considerable amount of activity that has been taking place on flu planning across Wales in recent years. The exercise provided a good opportunity to rehearse the roles that all organisations and key staff will have in responding to an outbreak. It proved that we have in place an effective framework within which we can respond to pandemic flu in Wales.

 

Meetings have been held with the NHS this week to review its response plans in light of both current events and the recent exercise. These plans cover all aspects of the healthcare system and are supported by a range of preventive measures that will be put in place in the next few days. These include, for example, guidelines to assist in the identification and management of cases, accessing anti-viral drugs, and the dissemination of public messages about the importance of hygiene.

 

There are simple steps that everyone can take to prevent catching colds and flu, based on good respiratory and hand hygiene such as always using a tissue when you sneeze, throwing away used tissues where germs can linger, and regularly washing your hands. The UK Government will be launching an advertising campaign in the next few days on good hygiene practice in light of the swine flu outbreak. That will include the delivery of an advice leaflet to every household and will be tailored to Wales, including by being bilingual.

 

When I wrote to Assembly Members on 27 April, I said that we must expect cases to be reported in Wales. While it is natural for people to feel apprehensive, we can reassure the public that we are working to prepare for the arrival of the virus, and we have robust procedures in place. I will ensure that Members are kept regularly briefed on events as the situation changes.