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UPDATE: Just prior to publishing this post the Ministry of Health published a new communiqué, it puts the number of confirmed deaths at 10, one in Setif and one in Oran (both large urban centres) , with 3 more to investigate. There are no announcements on the number of infections.
This blog continues to cover the recent rise in Swine flu in Algeria with great concern. In the last post, infections and deaths were mapped (there were 362/8 then, there are anywhere between 400 and 600 infections and 12 confirmed deaths as of today), with a great number of casualties happening in relatively remote areas. More panic is gripping the streets because of doubts about the readiness of the health infrastructure. Frustration is rising about the lack of communication from the Ministry of Health. There is little effort to educate the public about the flu. The effects of the flu panic are spilling into other sectors such as education and transport.
The Algerian public is notoriously panicky in the face of natural threats such as this. Recall that during previous solar eclipses there was so much media hype and warnings from the authorities that people feared to even go out to the streets on the day. As is the case of H1N1, the problem stems from the panic of the authorities, a lack of understanding, very weak communication channels for popular science and a weak leadership of the scientific community.
Official communication is reduced to a few declarations by the Minister of Health here and there with not much details. This is unacceptable in the face of so much panic and news from the popular newspapers. Two days ago the Minister of Health Mr Said Barkat announced from Annaba the death of 3 more people in the previous 24 hours. He wouldn’t elaborate on the locations of the deaths or the number of infections throughout the country. The last communiqué from the Ministry of Health via their website is dated the 3rd of December. There are no official numbers broken down by region in the country, which is why this blog will still try to track them via independent news sources.
There are reports of people as far as Biskra, Djelfa, Batna and the great Sahara driving over 600 miles to the capital because they don’t trust the local hospitals. Naturally the hospitals of Algiers became overcrowded, tempers flared and their administrations had to resort to permanent police presence to continue operating. Trust in the authorities is very low and that fuels even more panic – some took the chance to capitalise on selling dubious medicines.
A victim sector of this outbreak is education. Already many schools are being closed in the bourgeois region of Haidra and in the remote province of MSila which has suffered a relatively high rate of infections. After the recent teacher strikes, the outbreak couldn’t have come at a worst time with schools widely expected to close again for a few days – perhaps this will offer the best excuse to actually confirm the winter holidays which were in doubt because of the time lost during the strikes.
In other sectors, some court proceedings were adjourned, universities are unsure of how to deal with the flu, and panic did not spare even mosques, where Imams were instructed by the authorities to “educate the public about the illness”, according to Elkhabar. The newspaper reports that less people are going to the mosques as well (The tendency of the authorities to use this space is well known – previously the imams were instructed to lecture on the need “to vote for your country” to face the low voter turnouts).
The Ministry of Health reported buying 20 million flu vaccine shots, with the first batch of 900000 arriving yesterday. However, Elkhabar reported yesterday that the 900000 shots will not be available for weeks to come. There are serious doubts about the logistics involved to transport the vaccines across the vast country. The authorities should stop treating the vaccine as a silver bullet and should try to educate the public and communicate to them as much information as possible.