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Caribbean prepares for a potential H1N1 outbreak

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  • Caribbean prepares for a potential H1N1 outbreak

    Caribbean prepares for a potential H1N1 outbreak
    So far the Caribbean has managed to avoid a severe outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus, but the tourist season could pose a potential problem.

    Gabriel, an elementary school student at the U.S. Navy base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, gets his swine flu shot from sailor Thomas Molnar, on Dec. 3, 2009. Some 278 school children got H1N1 vaccines at Guantanamo. CHIEF PETTY OFFICER BILL MESTA / U.S. NAVY
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    When travelers hand over their passports to immigration agents at the international airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, they are almost certain to see new signs promoting frequent hand washing and others urging parents to keep sick children at home.

    In Jamaica, Trinidad and elsewhere in the Caribbean, tourists are asked how many days they plan to stay and to list countries they just visited. They are also given pamphlets on how best to avoid infection.

    Measures like these to contain the H1N1 flu virus -- or swine flu -- have become even more important as the Caribbean enters the high tourist season this month.

    Health officials point out that the region eluded an outbreak but that it's still poised to respond to any subsequent outbreak.

    ``The general public should be confident that the countries in the Caribbean have very much the necessary level of preparation and response,'' said Dr. Gina Watson, country representative for the Pan American Health Organization's Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean region. ``The ministries of health have the capacity to respond.''


    Health officials initially feared that an epidemic in the Caribbean would have caused havoc to the population and aggravated a tourism-dependent region already suffering from the tanking global economy.

    But that didn't happen.

    ``It was not as bad as we thought,'' said Rudolph Cummings, program manager for health sector development on behalf of the Caribbean Community regional bloc. Still, there have been some deaths.

    The Dominican Republic reported 22 deaths while officials documented seven in Cuba, and five in Jamaica, compared to the more than 1,000 in the United States, according to PAHO.Similarly, the World Health Organization has noted most Caribbean nations have seen a drop in influenza-like illnesses and severe acute respiratory infections.

    One country that has seen a spike in flu activity is the Cayman Islands.

    Though officials have been aggressive in educating the public about avoiding the illness, they reported a jump in flu activity in recent weeks. Since the first case of H1N1 was confirmed in June, Cayman has had a total of 112 confirmed cases of H1N1.

    But just as health experts say H1N1 is experiencing an overall decline in the Caribbean, they also say the virus could return as more than 10 million people could visit during the winter tourism season. The season lasts until April.

    Still, Cummings says the Caribbean and its tourists have little to worry about: A slowdown in infections in the United States could yield a slowdown in the Caribbean, he said. He added that a holiday break in the region this winter could provide further relief.

    Meanwhile, Watson, the PAHO physician, said Caribbean countries have purchased supplies of Tamiflu as well as received donations.

    ``There is no shortage in the availability of Tamiflu in the region,'' Watson said.

    On the remote U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo, Cuba, medical staff at the base hospital have promoted frequent hand washing and isolating sick sailors and other residents even before they get the results of lab tests that confirm who is sick with swine flu.


    The Pentagon has so far prevented an outbreak at the base and confirmed only 14 cases in its 6,000-strong community of U.S. forces and civilians that come and go through a single airstrip overlooking the Caribbean.

    ``There's no secret about what we are doing here,'' said Navy Capt. David Wright, a physician who oversees both the base and detention center hospitals. ``We have large turnover of staff. So we ask them, `Do you have a fever? Sore throat? Muscle aches and pains?' ''

    The topic of H1N1 in the Caribbean came up last week at the Caribbean-Central American Action's three-day conference in downtown Miami.

    At a breakfast panel, a medical doctor for Royal Caribbean said the ship takes several measures to prevent H1N1 infections, including heavy sanitation among crew members.

    The cruise company has documented 277 cases of influenza-like illnesses since May, said Arthur Diskin, vice president and global chief medical officer for Royal Caribbean. Earlier this year, some cruise ships were forced to remain at sea after cases of the virus were reported.

    The ports of call and the cruise ships have established certain protocols for dealing with infected passengers, Diskin said.

    ``We are reasonably satisfied with the procedures in place to deal with the problem,'' said Robert O'Connor, of the Virgin Islands Port Authority.

    Miami Herald staff writer Carol Rosenberg contributed reporting.