The Chief Advisor on emergency preparedness and pandemic influenza at the UK’s Health Protection Agency, Professor Nigel Lightfoot, CBE, said in an interview with Malta Inside Out that the islands were preparing well for any swine flu pandemic and that visitors and locals could be rest assured and enjoy the summer season as usual.
Professor Lightfoot, who is currently holidaying in Malta, held a lecture for around 300 health professionals at Malta’s main state hospital, Mater Dei, earlier this week. His visit is timely and his expertise invaluable to Malta as the country has only recently experienced its first cases of swine flu and is seeing increasing local media coverage of the virus’ spread on the islands.
The Professor, who has long-standing Malta links since his time here as a doctor with the British Navy in the ’60s and through Maltese relatives, has forged informal dialogue with the Maltese health ministry and the islands’ leading virologists over the years. Professor Lightfoot frequently attends the UK Cabinet’s emergency council, known as Cobra, which meets to discuss and plan UK government responses in times of emergency. He therefore has expert insight into the mechanisms Malta needs in place to deal with pandemics.
Professor Lightfoot’s comments come after the vociferous media and public debate on whether events, like Isle of MTV last week, should be cancelled. “There is no need for public events to be cancelled. It is inevitable that swine flu will spread and the incidence of the flu in Malta will most likely take the same pattern as in the UK. At this stage in the UK, we are talking not about containment but about treatment – to the extent that even people in contact with swine flu patients, but who have not shown signs of any symptoms themselves, can and should still go about their regular daily lives,” Professor Lightfoot said.
“Swine flu is a new strain of flu and for that reason we can’t say precisely how it will develop in the wider population over time or whether it will remain the relatively mild flu it has been for the vast majority of people infected,” said Professor Lightfoot. He said that any country new to facing swine flu should put out the level-headed message that people should take a calm approach and sensible hygiene measures and remain at home and off work for seven days if they have flu. He added that at present, young people, aged from three to around 19, appeared to be more susceptible to the virus. His overriding message was that while vigilance was needed, there was no need for public alarm.
Professor Lightfoot pointed out four differences in the way the public and public agencies were reacting to this latest flu in comparision to past pandemics and spikes in seasonal flu: “The avian flu strain H5N1 in the East heightened our ability to plan, but it also brought far greater public awareness of pandemics; we are now seeing a public that wants, impossibly, a ‘no risk’ society; the media tend to take the line that a country is not prepared enough, thereby overlooking the solid foundation of behind-the-scenes work that is putting appropriate national and international responses in place; and, for the first time with any flu, anti-virals are being made available on a wide scale – covering around 70 per cent of the UK population and probably around 35 per cent of the population in Malta.”
Professor Lightfoot has had a distinguished career in UK public health, and received a C.B.E. in the New Year’s Honours list this year for his outstanding work on preparedness for pandemics and on Polonium 210 (investigating its use in the death of Russian UK resident, Alexander Litvinenko). His career has seen him lead national responses to some of the most well-reported threats to UK public health over the past decade, such as anthrax, polonium and pandemics, as well as draw up top-level, sensitive policies to counter chemical and biological warfare and terrorism attacks.
Malta Swine Flu helpline:
Anyone who is currently feeling any flu-like symptoms is urged not to go to hospital emergency departments or clinics; instead they are asked to stay at home and contact a doctor, or contact the swine flu helpline on 21324086.