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47 dead, 2,000 sick in PNG disease outbreak: officials

by Staff Writers
Port Moresby (AFP) Aug 31, 2009
Twin outbreaks of a mystery flu and dysentery in a remote region of Papua New Guinea have killed 47 people and infected another 2,000 villagers, a senior medical official said Monday.

And a separate eruption of cholera in the Pacific island nation has killed seven adults and sickened 73 other people, provincial health adviser Theo Likei told AFP.

Twenty-seven villagers in the Menyamya district of Morobe province, on the northeast coast, have died from an as-yet unidentified influenza since August 3, while a further 20 were felled by dysentery.

"Roughly 2,000 people are sick in about 12 villages and we suspect influenza and dysentery are the cause," Likei told AFP.

"So far there have been about 47 deaths, about 90 percent of them in the village of Akwanda," where 95 percent of the reported flu and dysentery infections were reported.

It was not immediately known whether the flu-like illness was swine flu or another strain. The World Health Organization has taken samples from stricken villages and test results could be available within days, a WHO official said.

"We cannot rule out swine flu at the moment but the outbreak is in a remote area, which would be a little surprising if it is H1N1 (swine flu)", said the WHO representative in PNG, Eigil Sorensen.

"But the number of sick and fatalities are certainly higher than normal so we take both of these outbreaks seriously," he told AFP.

Papua New Guinea has reported around 10 cases of swine flu but they were traced back and appeared to have been imported into the country, Sorensen said.

Worried local health officials warned that the dual outbreak of illness was proving difficult to control as the eruption was in an isolated area some eight hours' rough drive from PNG's second city of Lae.

"The problem is that once it gets started in remote areas it's very hard to stop and the area is hard to reach, but we are hoping the illness will remain isolated to pockets of the area so we can manage it," Likei said.

"This is the worst such crisis we have seen here, he said. "The situation is not that encouraging as of today but we will monitor closely over the next two days or so and hope it comes under control."

Four three-man health teams are on the ground treating victims of the outbreaks and encouraging villagers to restrict their movements, boil water and take care when preparing food to avoid spreading the disease further.

Doctors do not believe the eruption of two diseases about 120 kilometres (75 miles) west of Lae are linked as dysentery is usually bacterial and flu is viral.

But a separate and rare outbreak of cholera in the east of the rugged and often inaccessible province is complicating the medical relief effort.

"We are very concerned and hope cholera hasn't established itself in PNG as it would be another great burden to an already strained health system," Health Minister Sasa Zibe was quoted as saying by the Australian Associated Press.

The WHO's Sorensen said his office was working with the nation's health department to combat the cholera.

"This is an unusual event in the context of PNG, There hadn't been cholera here for 40 or 50 years," he told AFP.

"There's some belief maybe it's come from marine life. Shellfish have been responsible in other cases overseas," he said.

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