Central America moves to ward off flu

April 24, 2009

EL SALVADOR AND NICARAGUA – Health ministers from the member countries of the Central American Integration System (SICA) met behind closed doors in Managua Tuesday to sign a series of accords committing to use all resources available to confront swine flu, the same day the first and second swine flu cases in the region were reported in Costa Rica and other cases were suspected across Central America.

The SICA countries declared a health alert and pledged to increase vigilance and activate preventive programs. The SICA members present also said they would ask for help from the World Health Organization.

SICA is composed of Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, although Costa Rica and Belize were not present to sign Tuesday´s declaration.

Countries in the region have been taking increased protective measures at their borders. In El Salvador, health officials are screening every passenger disembarking flights from Mexico, while immigration and customs officials – and even some duty free vendors – have started wearing the familiar paper paint masks for protection.

On interregional flights, masked stewardess hand out customs documents to masked passengers, who look accusingly at others who sneeze, cough or clear their throats while in-flight.

The SICA group also agreed to stop passengers from boarding planes who show clear symptoms related with swine flu – although health authorities describe these to be very similar to the common seasonal flu. The countries also pledged to share information with each other about suspected cases.

The Nicaraguan government, which on Tuesday ruled out several suspected cases of infection, has declared the issue a “priority” and is already trying to get political millage out of the pandemic, which they refer to as “the North American flu.” The ruling Sandinistas report that their “citizen power” health councils and brigades are being instructed to increase their vigilance for people displaying flu-like symptoms.

The Nicaraguan Social Security Institute is coordinating the response of public health clinics and President Daniel Ortega reportedly canceled his annual May 1 International Workers´ Day rally, to prevent the health risk posed by a large congregation of people.

President Ortega was expected to announce a national state of emergency Tuesday night around 9 p.m., though it hadn´t yet been confirmed by press time.

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