Harare — AT least 135 pupils from Marist Brothers High School and Mount Melleray Primary School in Nyanga have in the past week been diagnosed with symptoms of a strain of influenza authorities fear could be the potentially deadly AH1N1, commonly known as swine flu.
Secretary for Health and Child Welfare Dr Gerald Gwinji said all the children, who displayed symptoms of Influenza Type A, were put on treatment and nasal swab samples had been sent for further testing.
Of the cases, four have been described as serious and the patients are under close supervision at St Melleray Mission Hospital while the other 131 were discharged after treatment although they would continue to be monitored.
The presence of Influenza Type A in the body, experts say, is an indication of the potential contraction of either bird flu or swine flu.
"Most of the cases presented mild symptoms. They have been treated and discharged, save for only four who are detained at a local health institution," Dr Gwinji said.
He said the samples would be sent to either South Africa or Zambia to determine whether or not swine or bird flu viruses were present.
"The South African laboratory is now inundated with its own cases as well as samples from other countries in the region, so we are now considering Zambia, whose laboratories are also World Health Organisation pre-qualified to run the tests," Dr Gwinji said.
He said the country was in the process of capacitating the Government laboratory at the University of Zimbabwe to be able to identify the AH1N1 virus though the process required a lot of financial resources.
He said the source of the potential outbreak could not be easily established.
Government, he said, was capacitating private institutions with relevant equipment and drugs for quicker response in the event of an outbreak. Private health institutions such as Avenues Clinic, St Anne's, West End and South Medical hospitals have all received supplies from the Government to assist patients who have signs of the virus.
"We have tried to make available some drugs to pharmacies, but their representatives have not yet provided us with names of outlets convenient for members of the public," Dr Gwinji said.
Asked if there was a possibility that other cases might have slipped Government's monitoring, Dr Gwinji said this could have happened because some people could go and get treated at private health institutions.
Commenting on a swine flu vaccine currently on trial in Australia and the United States, he said Zimbabwe might have access to the vaccine through assistance from the World Health Organisation.
"Although the vaccine is still under trials, some wealthy countries such as Japan have already made pre-payments.
"When the vaccine is finally approved and made available to countries, obviously they will get first priority. However, WHO usually makes payments for huge quantities, which they donate to affected countries if need be, and that is where we stand to benefit," Dr Gwinji said.
The vaccine has between a 75 and 95 percent chance of protecting people from contracting swine flu.
Swine flu manifests itself through severe headaches, fevers of above 38 degrees Celsius, chills, severe coughs, sore throats, shortness of breath, fatigue and possible pneumonia.
The virus can be mild, moderate or severe. People with mild cases can recover without receiving treatment while severe cases can be fatal if treatment is not administered within 48 hours.
Patients with mild AH1N1 virus can still transmit the virus with fatal results to other people.