Updated May 24, 2009 12:00 AM
MANILA, Philippines - The Department of Health (DOH) said it is looking into a report that two Taiwanese visitors – a mother and her five-year-old daughter – caught the A(H1N1) influenza virus in the Philippines.
A 30-year-old Taiwanese woman who reportedly attended a yoga workshop in the Philippines from May 16 to 20 was earlier confirmed to have contracted A(H1N1) influenza in the country, the DOH said in a statement. Her daughter was later also found positive for the flu virus.
However, the two were not diagnosed until after they returned to Taiwan.
“The Philippine Department of Health has started investigating the matter. We are coordinating with the Taiwanese authorities and trying to contact the organizers to be able to trace all the attendants of the (yoga) event,” the statement said.
About 100 or more people from the United States, Canada and Australia reportedly attended the yoga workshop, the department said.
It was not clear how the woman and her daughter got infected, health department officials said.
They said the woman might have contracted the virus from the other foreign participants of the yoga session or the disease could already have been incubating when she left Taiwan together with her daughter but manifested symptoms only upon their return home.
Taiwan authorities were tracing people who had contact with the woman and her daughter.
Shih Wen-yi, spokesman for Taiwan’s Central Epidemics Command Center, said the mother did not have fever upon arriving at Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport Wednesday, and she dined at a friend’s house that evening after resting at home.
According to Shih, who declined to identify where the patient lives, the woman developed a fever and other flu-like symptoms including coughing and weakness Thursday and was soon quarantined, as was her daughter that night after developing fever earlier in the day.
The center is investigating whether individuals who had contact with the woman are also suffering from the flu, Shih said.
The girl’s kindergarten class – affiliated with Guangfu Elementary School in Taipei’s Zhonghe City – has been ordered closed until May 29, Shih said.
The kindergarten’s 119 teachers, staff members and students have been asked to stay home and take anti-flu medicine for 10 days, Shih added.
In Manila, the DOH said it was “on top of the situation and we are closely monitoring this new development.”
The department stressed that there was no need to panic. “We continually strengthen our systems for effective surveillance, management and response,” it said.
“The Taiwanese health authorities are tracing the contacts of the patient during the flight. Again, we emphasize that the DOH is on top of the situation and we are closely monitoring this new development,” DOH Undersecretary Mario Villaverde said.
“The National Pandemic Preparedness and Response Plan is in place and we continually strengthen our systems for effective surveillance,” he added.
He also explained why only 17 co-passengers of the 10-year old Filipina girl who tested positive for A(H1N1) have been put under observation.
“It’s our contact tracing. This infection is a droplet infection and that’s how the influenza is transmitted,” Villaverde said over Vice President Noli de Castro’s “Para sa Iyo Bayan” weekly radio program on dzMM.
“There’s direct secretion of the patient – colds, cough, sneeze. This is not airborne so only the close contact priority should be traced because it’s a droplet infection,” he added.
Dr. Yolanda Oliveros, director of DOH’s National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that while the department does not ban big gatherings, it urges organizers and participants to observe precautionary measures against the A(H1N1) flu virus.
“If they can postpone the gathering, better. But if not, the DOH has issued guidelines that they can follow,” she added.
The DOH recommends that gatherings be held in open-air venues without overcrowding and that the venues must be equipped with hand washing facilities.
The DOH has also advised those with fever, cough and cold, among others, to avoid attending public gatherings.
At Malacañang, Press Secretary Cerge Remonde appealed to the public to heed and respect the DOH’s approach to the A(H1N1) threat.
Reacting to calls from various groups, including Roman Catholic bishops, for the government to provide more information about the first confirmed case of the A(H1N1) virus in the country, Remonde said the Palace would leave it up to the DOH.
“We leave this matter to the Department of Health. They are in the best position, they have the training, expertise and proven capability to address threats like these,” Remonde said over state-run Radyo ng Bayan.
The DOH has declined to provide detailed information about the first A(H1N1) case in the country, except for the age and gender of the afflicted person.
Health officials explained that the identity and whereabouts of the 10-year-old girl were being kept upon the request of the girl’s family.
Meanwhile, the DOH said 15 of the girl’s 17 co-passengers in the plane that carried them to Manila from the US showed no symptoms of A(H1N1).
But DOH’s Villaverde said the 15 passengers and their housemates have been asked to undergo self-quarantine for 10 days and take Oseltamivir antibiotic to fight off possible infection.
“Our regional epidemiology units are coordinating with the local government units to contact the two other passengers who are spread in wider areas of Luzon,” he added. He did not identify the two.
The girl is said to be recovering and only has slight sore throat. She will still be made to undergo laboratory examination to determine if her viral load has reduced.
“It looks likes she had acquired the mild type of influenza,” Villaverde said.
Remonde said President Arroyo has ordered the DOH, Bureau of Quarantine and other concerned agencies to strengthen measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
These include the purchase of more screening equipment for passengers arriving from other countries.
Remonde said the DOH has been given full access to the funds of the National Disaster Coordinating Council and that the President is prepared to augment the funds for fighting the disease “as soon as the Department of Health will ask for it.”
Airport info campaign
The Manila International Airport Authority and the Bureau of Quarantine began yesterday a series of seminars for NAIA personnel to educate them and increase their awareness of the new strain of influenza virus.
“This is very important especially now that statistics of suspected and confirmed cases worldwide is escalating,” Alfonso Cusi, MIAA general manager, said.
“As we continue to monitor the arrival and departure of passengers through our thermal scanners, we also care about our workers at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) and their safety is paramount to us,” Cusi said.
The orientation includes basic information about the A(H1N1) virus, its background and how it is transmitted.
“In extreme situations like this, it is best to tap the airport employees themselves to help the MIAA and the Department of Health in their daily efforts to prevent the entry of the virus into the Philippines. Partnering with them translates into saving their lives as well as that of their loved ones,” Cusi said.
“On our first day, around 800 employees assigned at NAIA Terminal 1 participated in the awareness program. We hope to be able to reach out to almost 5,000 employees working in the NAIA complex within the next two to three weeks,” he added.
“These efforts are all aimed to unite everyone at the premier gateway so we can overcome this new challenge that affects everybody,” Cusi said. – Sheila Crisostomo, Pia Lee-Brago, Rudy Santos, Marvin Sy