Troops in Afghanistan fight swine flu amid war

AP News
Posted: Nov 09, 2009 9:44 AM

Hundreds of Afghan and international troops already battling a rising militant insurgency are facing a new fight _ recovering from swine flu, the virus that has left 11 people dead in the country.

The Ministry of Public Health said Monday that 710 of the 779 cases of H1N1 reported since early July have been among Afghan, U.S. and Italian troops. The 11 people who have died from the virus were all Afghans, including one soldier.

Public Health Minister Dr. Mohammad Amin Fatemi said the Afghan National Army reported 390 cases of H1N1 and 320 cases were identified among foreign troops. Most are U.S. forces stationed at Bagram Air Base and Italian soldiers at the military base in Herat in western Afghanistan.

Worried that the flu could spread unabated through a country in its ninth year of war, the government decided earlier this month to close schools and universities for three weeks. Government health officials advised anyone with a fever to stay home from work, and those with mild symptoms to wear a mask in public places. The flu scare has prompted some people to wear blue surgical masks on the streets of the capital.

The day the government announced the school closings, Fatemi said he urged President Hamid Karzai to refrain from shaking hands with his deputies. That warning prompted Karzai to cancel several meetings that day, said Fatemi, who used hand sanitizer after shaking hands with people at the news conference.

"I don't think the decision to close educational institutions was taken lightly," Peter Graaff, the World Health Organization's representative to Afghanistan said at the press briefing. "If you decide to invoke measures, such as closures of educational institutions before you have, let's say, up to 1 percent of your population affected, you can reduce the number of people who will get the disease by a third to a half."

Graaff said Afghan health officials aggressively appealed to the WHO to be one of the countries to benefit from a global vaccine donation program, which is being administered by the organization.

"I'm pleased to say that out of the first 11 million doses that the WHO will receive _ and we haven't received them yet _ 500,000 doses will come to Kabul," Graaff said.

The ministry said 453 cases of H1N1 have been reported in Kabul; 272 in Parwan province; 32 in Kandahar province; 15 in Herat province; and the rest in Balkh, Bamiyan and Nangarhar provinces.